Would the Real John Lackey Please Stand Up?

John Lackey’s success this year has been one of many feel-good stories for the 2013 Boston Red Sox. Lackey has been one of the best Red Sox starters this year by almost any measure, making him a surprising anchor for a rotation that includes Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Ryan Dempster.

But is the 2013 version of Lackey just a mirage, or is he going to continue to pitch like the player the Red Sox wanted when they signed him to a 5 year, $82.5 million contract (per baseball-reference.com)? Let’s take a closer look at his numbers to this point and see if we can figure out what we can expect from him moving forward.

To begin, Lackey has been the best Sox starter by a handful of different measures. Lackey has had the best command of any starter for the Red Sox this year. In fact, he is 6th in the American League in K/BB ratio, ahead of such players as Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander. He is T-2nd on the team in terms of fWAR, and perhaps most importantly, he leads the team in xFIP. This is the first indicator that his 2.95 ERA is a fairly good estimate of his overall performance, and it also predicts more success for him through the rest of the season.

Now, one might assume that half a season is not a big enough sample size to understand Lackey’s future, and one might also make the argument that his numbers this year have been due to luck rather than skill. However, there are a couple reasons to believe that Lackey’s success is sustainable, and he might have turned a corner after two awful seasons, and another in which he didn’t pitch an inning, in Boston.

The first noticeable change in Lackey’s pitching is his pitch usage. According to PITCHf/x data, Lackey’s four seam fastball use has increased astronomically this year compared to his previous two full seasons. This year Lackey is using his four seamer 51.3% of the time, compared to 15.2% and 15.1% in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This surprising jump in fastball usage has come largely at the expense of his cutter. In 2010 Lackey used his cutter 41.9% of the time, and that number is down to 27% in 2013. Perhaps he is more confident in his fastball this season after having Tommy John surgery in 2011.

Lackey is also using his off-speed stuff with much less regularity this season as compared to his first two in Boston. He threw his 24.1% curveballs in 2010, but this year that number is down to 13.1%. Another change, one that might not be as easy to notice, was Lackey’s use of his change-up. In his last three years in LA, his average change-up use was 3%, but in his first two years in Boston that number jumped to 6.2% (including 7.8% in 2011). In 2013 he is only throwing the change 3.1% of the time.

So what are the results of Lackey’s change in pitch repertoire, and why have his changes led to his return to dominance? For starters, he has induced batters to swing-and-miss at a much higher rate. This year against Lackey, batter’s swinging strike percentage has increased by 2.5% from Lackey’s last two full seasons (up to 9.5% from 7.0% in 2010 & 2011). Lackey is also throwing more first-pitch strikes this year.

After such a dramatic about-face from what Red Sox fans had seen from Lackey in his first two years, it is only natural to be hesitant in believing that he will continue to play well. But given all the reasons stated above, it seems like this new John Lackey might really be here to stay. On top of all the reasons previously stated, his HR/FB rate (14.7%) this year suggests that he is not being helped by luck when it comes to fly balls making it out of the park. Lackey is also inducing more ground balls than ever before (50.8%), and his GB/FB rate is top 10 in the AL.

All told, it seems that the 2013 version of John Lackey (22.7 K% and a sub-3 ERA through 106.2 innings) might just be with us for the long haul. It would be easy to declare this drastic change — from a pitcher who’s career many had written off to a staff-ace for the AL East leading Red Sox — a shocking and unexpected turn of events, but it’s difficult to call anything about this team shocking, based on the surprises that have already happened this year.

The continued success of the Red Sox depends heavily on players like Lackey continuing to have surprisingly good years. The Sox’s rotation is in an especially delicate position with the nagging injury issues of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester’s continued struggles, so they need Lackey to continue to provide stability to their pitching staff. Luckily for the front office and fans, it doesn’t appear that the 2013 version of John Lackey is leaving anytime soon.

As a closing thought that doesn’t really have too much to do with this article except for the title, I leave you with this video. Please enjoy.

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