The Triumphant Return of John Lackey…Sort Of

Posted on 06 March 2013 by Will Emerson

There is talk, as there so often is around Spring Training camps, of John Lackey being in the best shape of his life (I am being a bit hyperbolic, but you get the point) and ready to return to his old self.

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The bulldog, big game winning, innings eating, ace-like pitcher of yore. Obviously the Red Sox would love that. Well, sort of. I mean, they would be glad take anything better than Lackey’s 2011. To say John Lackey’s 2011 was atrocious would be, well, pretty accurate. In 28 starts with the BoSox, Lackey was 12-12 with an ERA of 6.41. Although, managing 12 wins with an ERA like that is impressive, even if it was mainly due to having a very good offense behind him. His FIP of 4.71 was also, well, terrible, but it does show that he was tad better than the ERA would indicate. Would be hard to be worse, wouldn’t it? Once you close in on an ERA around five or higher though, the difference is somewhat negligible, in my mind. Now, if Lackey was making the league minimum in 2011, the Red Sox could just be like, “Oh well, moving on”, but Lackey was not making the league minimum in 2o11, was he? No, he was not, in case you were actually unawares of his salary. Lackey made $15.95 million in 2011 or exactly $15.95 million more than what I will make writing about him in this little post. Now the Red Sox won’t have to pay him nearly as much as that in 2013, so rest easy Red Sox fans. No, no, he is only due $15.25 million in 2013 or roughly $15.2498 more than I have in my savings account. So, needless to say, the Red Sox are hoping to get something out of that chunk of change, preferably what they thought they were paying for. But what exactly did the Rouge Hose pay for?

The Sox backed up a Brinks trunk to get Lackey in a Boston uniform, shelling out loads of cash for a pitcher who was one of the big names on the free market back in ought nine. (It may have technically happened in 2010, but I just wanted to type ought nine.) Lackey certainly had an aura around him. Big game pitcher? Check. Yankee killer? Check. The latter being the biggest reason the Sox would pursue him…that and not letting the Yankees get their greasy mitts on him. You see, back in the olden days of the early 21st century the Red Sox and Yankees would play the free agent market like a game of poker at Teddy KGB’s. If one showed interest in a big-ish name free agent, the other would as well. The team to show initial interest may not have even wanted the player, but they knew they could bluff the other into making a move. So if the Yankees showed interest in John Lackey the Red Sox would do the same, even though the Yankees may not have really wanted him in the first place, but rather wanted the Red Sox to throw money at him, when the Yanks really only had mild interest. Got all that? Sort of, maybe? (That is not the proposed sequel to the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Definitely, Maybe…yet) Well, anywho, the Sox went out and threw money at Lackey. Lackey was considered to be a workhorse, innings eater as well a previous mentioned big game pitcher and Yankee killer. Or so everyone thought.

I guess Lackey just has that bulldog mentality and because he pitched well in big games, he was a gem. A gem worth $18.7 million to the Red Sox in 2010. I recall severall pundits and what-have-yous, having their mindholes blown by the contract the Red Sox doled out to this thirtysomething hurler. Why? Lackey was ace like or at the very least a serviceable number two starter, right? In the words of Willy Wonka, “WRONG! Wrong sir!” In ten major league seasons Lackey posted an ERA below 3.44 just once and below 3.66 just thrice! All three of those seasons were in his mid to late 20s. Now of course you should know by now, that ERA is a flawed statistic and should not be the number to completely judge a pitcher at all. So try these numbers on for size. In his career Lackey has posted an xFIP below 3.83, exactly once. Once! In that season he had a 3.59 xFIP. Even his regular ol’ FIP was high, only coming in under 3.50 twice! Surely they advanced stat mavens in the Sox front office looked at these numbers, right? Oh wait a tick! Lackey is a Yankee killer, that’s why the Red Sox gave him the big bucks, right?

In 2009, Lackey had a 2.57 ERA when he pitched against the Bronx Bombers in the regular, posting a K/9 of 7 and a WHIP of 1.29. Well, that’s pretty darned good, isn’t it? It sure is! He dominated the Yankees in that one regular season start. Well obviously the Angels and Yankees did not meet much during the regular season, but it was Lackey’s ’09 postseason performance against the Bombers that basically earned him his 2010 contract. It had to have been, right? In two ALCS starts against the Yankees in 2009, Lackey threw 12 innings, allowing five earned runs on 15 hits, striking out ten, and walking six. That’s an ERA close to four, folks, which I guess against the Yankees could be considered pretty good. But $82.5 million over five years pretty good?  Although conversely, Lackey’s last three postseason starts against the Red Sox for very good. In those starts Johnboy tossed 21 innings allowing four earned runs on 15 hits, stymieing the Sox. So, maybe they just wanted to spend that money to avoid seeing Lackey in the postseason? That’s a lot of money to insure you don’t have to face a certain pitcher in the postseason, but the Sox have deep pockets, so to each their own. I know, I know, all of this is hardly new information and something that could not have been written back in 2009-10, but I am going somewhere with this, I swear. You see, many fantasy players are certainly eyeing Lackey as a possible sleeper, hoping he can return to form. But what form is that and is it really sleeper worthy form?

First off, there is no way in heck (I sometimes look at John Lackey and feel he says “heck” and “shucks” a lot, but that’s neither here nor there) you should expect him to return to the form of his career season in 2007. That 19-9 campaign with a 3.01 ERA was a big anomaly (Big Shucks? I think I just found John Lackey’s new nickname). As in a season not to be repeated by John Derran Lackey. So what is Lackey’s “form”? Well, just for craps and giggles, let us take a look at Lacker’s three best seasons. In those three seasons Lackey averaged a 3.86 xFIP, but a respectable 3.33 FIP. Coincidentally his overall ERA for those three seasons was also 3.33. Of course that season with the 3.01 ERA in there certainly helps. Lackey also posted a K/9 close to eight! Wow, a solid three seasons it seems, even though his overall ERAs were a bit lower than they should have been. So if, if, he were to return to that form he would be a sleeper for sure. Unfortunately in the four seasons Lackey has pitched since then, he has not really quite approached that level of goodness, so the three seasons prior to that disaster of a 2011 season are more likely your best case scenario for Lackey in 2013. That translates into a borderline sleeper at SP, I suppose. You would probably get 12 wins, with an ERA right around four, WHIP of about 1.30 and a K/9 in the mid sixes. That’s sleeperish if not for just the wins, I would think, but remember that is the best case scenario for Lackey in 2013.

What you are more likely to get out of Lackey, still eight to ten wins, sure, but an ERA closer to 4.50, with a WHIP of about, well 1.30-1.40 and very few Ks. Hey, look at that! Not too far from the best case scenario I just laid out for you, huh?! For fantasy purposes though, you are in luck, because unlike the Red Sox, you will not have to pay big bucks for Lackey, so he could very well be worth a late round, or $1 bargain bin auction, pickup.  I don’t foresee myself drafting Lackey in any format, but at the very least, in shallow mixed or AL-only leagues, he could be a viable streaming option from time to time. So keep John Lackey in the back of your mind (and start calling him Big Shucks) as the season progresses, but don’t expect anything ace-like that is for darned sure.

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