Thursday, December 17, 2009

John Lackey

Well, thanks to the Red Sox for waiting all of two hours or so to make my last post completely irrelevant. Mike Cameron, welcome aboard. Great to have you (Here's a fun question: Who has provided more Wins Above Replacement to his team over the last two years: Mike Cameron or Jason Bay?). John Lackey? Well, this one I'm a bit more concerned about.

One thing I won't deny is that the deal looks like it makes the team better for this year, as it makes the question marks the Sox have in the minors force their way onto the roster rather than being handed a spot, and with the guys the Sox have down on the farm, that sounds good to me. But this deal is a lot of risk to assume, especially for a team that has been as low-risk as the Sox in the past. 5 years for a pitcher is a heck of a commitment considering the high injury and attrition rates at the position, and Lackey has a checkered injury history the last two years, a glaring red flag considering those seasons follow 5 consecutive years of heavy workloads. Pitching-wise, Lackey is slightly ground ball-oriented, though essentially neutral in this regard. What he makes his money off of is his ability to strike out an above-average number of hitters while limiting his walks, making him a good starter. Which is why it concerns me that his ability to K batters is in a five-year decline.

Lackey's peak year was 2005, when he was legitimately Cy Young-caliber. Since then, with a graph line that points up a bit each year, batters make contact with 5% more of the pitches they swing at in the strike zone, and a whopping 20.4% of the pitches they swing at out of the zone. Lackey has gone from very hard to hit to essentially league-average (Or slightly worse than league-average) contact rates. For obvious reasons, this has led to his strikeout rate declining, as that is also in a five-year decline. Now, Lackey is what the old sportswriters call a 'Crafty veteran', and he hasn't let this go unnoticed. Rather, he seems to have changed his pitching style a bit in response to his increasing inability to obtain a swing-and-miss, upping his pitches thrown outside of the strike zone significantly last year. Unfortunately, as I just mentioned, batters have dramatically increased their contact rate against these pitches as well, and while the move undoubtedly helped Lackey's strikeout numbers a bit, it also led to an increase in his walk rate. Things like this scare me.

So what we have is an aging pitcher who has struggled with injuries, with a dwindling ability to strike out hitters, lacking the strong GB-tendencies that would make high contact rates acceptable. The fortunate bit is that so far Lackey has had a very gentle annual decline, and he was starting from a high talent level in the first place. But eventually there comes a point where a pitchers inability to put one past a hitter pushes that pitcher off a cliff completely (See Hernandez, Livan). I am not going to claim I know exactly where that point is, but each year John Lackey gets a bit closer to it (When he manages to stay on the field), and the Sox just committed to paying him until he's 35. As long as they aren't expecting an ace, they shouldn't be too disappointed, as with this rotation, Lackey is third-starter material at best. But I wouldn't be surprised if, by the end of 2010, Clay Buchholz has pushed Lackey down to fourth in the pecking order, and it's probably not getting better from there on out.

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