Commentary

Where Lackey went wrong last season

His walks rose, his strikeouts dropped and he was stumped by lefties

Updated: February 16, 2011, 2:30 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

It's probably a good rule of thumb for a starting pitcher to have a win for every million dollars he makes.

At 14-11, John Lackey came up four wins short in 2010.

In a different spring, he'd likely be under far greater scrutiny. But a slew of key players return from injury for the Boston Red Sox, including fellow starter Josh Beckett. Throw in the arrival of two offensive stars. Then there's the possibility of a spring filled with Jonathan Papelbon trade rumors.

Once everyone reports to camp, Lackey will easily slip under the radar.

You can't escape this simple fact about Lackey's first season in Boston: Remaining unscathed on the 2010 Red Sox was a significant accomplishment.

But unlike in Beckett's case, Lackey can't point to injuries to explain away a season widely characterized as a disappointment.

On Monday, he was ready to address that notion.

"Honestly, I think it was overblown," he said. "I'd won 14 games only once in my life. I led the team in quality starts. Whatever. It kind of comes with it."

Those wins were, of course, highly dependent on the team surrounding him, and thus not the best reflection of his season.

But even looking at that total tells an interesting story. While Lackey's boast of 14 wins doesn't necessarily hold water, the irony is he probably deserved more.

[+] EnlargeLackey
Steven King/Icon SMIWhen Lackey allowed two or fewer walks, he went 11-5. He was just 3-6 when allowing three or more.

The Red Sox went 16-17 in Lackey's 33 starts and 73-56 in all other games. Lackey had eight no-decisions, seven of which were quality starts. In five of those starts, he left the game with the lead.

Right or wrong, it's hard to imagine as much uncertainty if he had the 18 wins to match his $18 million salary.

But a deeper look at Lackey's numbers show significant falloff from his years in Anaheim. His walks rose, while his strikeouts declined.

It wasn't just the free passes, though. Lackey was knocked around for 36 doubles at Fenway alone, more than he gave up in either of the previous two seasons. In all, he allowed 59 doubles, most in the majors and most by a Red Sox pitcher since Bruce Hurst in 1984.

So let's dive in a bit deeper to figure out what went wrong for Lackey in 2010, and what the future may hold.

Free passes to lefties

Lackey issued 72 walks last season. That number itself isn't alarming. Daisuke Matsuzaka allowed two more in more than 60 fewer innings. Jon Lester had a higher walk rate in a far more accomplished season.

What's troubling is how last season compared with Lackey's history. With 3.0 walks per nine innings, he allowed free passes at his highest rate since 2005. From 2007 to 2009, he'd severely cut down on walks with just 2.2 per nine.

The walks had a clear impact on Lackey's success.

How's this for a basic predictor? When Lackey allowed two or fewer walks, he went 11-5. He was just 3-6 when allowing three or more.

So what went wrong?

The biggest issue arose against left-handed hitters.

In 2009, he walked them at a rate of one per 18.9 plate appearances. Last season, that fell to one per 11.0 PA. (His rate against righties actually improved.)

Last year, Lackey went to three-ball counts essentially just as often against lefties as he did against righties. Yet his walk rate was much higher against lefties.

That leads to the question: Where was he missing?

Pitch Chart
John Lackey vs lefties, 2008-09, on ball four.

Take a look at the heat maps for ball four when Lackey walked a lefty. They are shown from the pitcher's perspective.

In 2008 and 2009, the maps were nearly identical and are thus shown together. When Lackey missed in a three-ball count, it was almost always while attacking the lefty low and inside.

Pitch Chart
John Lackey vs. lefties, 2010, on ball four.

In 2010, he suddenly began missing away. Lackey's most frequent target with three balls against lefties had always been the outside corner. But it suddenly became a spot that he couldn't consistently hit.

Lefties finished with a .364 on-base percentage against Lackey, the highest in his career. That's a number that will need to come down for a successful 2011.

But maybe the Red Sox found a much simpler answer: Signing Carl Crawford. He went 8-for-12 against Lackey last season and holds a .467 lifetime average against him.

Signs of hope for a declining K rate

In 2005, Lackey finished second in the AL with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Only Johan Santana was better. That rate has fallen every year since. Previously it was accompanied by a declining walk rate. Last season, both numbers went in the wrong direction.

Lackey's 6.5 K per 9 was 27th in the American League. Coupled with more walks, Lackey had a 2.2 K per BB, the lowest since his rookie season.

Taken as a whole, it looks bad. But there were clear signs of progress as the season went on.

Lackey's poor strikeout numbers were weighed down by his first two months in Boston. In those 10 starts, he fanned only 35 while walking 31 in 61 1/3 innings. Compare that with his final 10 starts of 2010. Lackey struck out 61 and walked just 14 in 68 1/3 innings.

Therein is the hope for Lackey going forward.

The suspense was largely gone when Boston entered September seven games out of the wild card. But that's also when Lackey began to come on strong.

He had quality starts in five of his last six appearances. From September on, he boasted a 3.46 ERA and opponents hit just .221.

The Next Kevin Millwood?

Bill James devised a system to compare players at various points in their careers. The Similarity Score assigns a point system for statistics and then relates it to age. While not an overly scientific approach, it provides interesting comparisons. Is Crawford really the next Roberto Clemente? Is Dustin Pedroia about to turn into Jose Vidro?

In the case of Lackey, his most similar pitchers raise significant questions relative to his age -- particularly with four years remaining on his contract.

Through age 31, Baseball-Reference.com lists Lackey's five most similar pitchers as Kevin Millwood, Freddy Garcia, Jason Schmidt, Jack McDowell and Matt Morris.

All five failed to live up to the lofty expectations established prior to them turning 32. Millwood is the only one who even managed to stay healthy for any extended period. Garcia and Schmidt pitched sporadically while battling injuries. McDowell and Morris each lasted only two more seasons.

Of course, this doesn't mean Lackey, with two career DL stints, will suddenly become fragile. Without their injuries, who knows how Schmidt, McDowell, Garcia and Morris would have fared with age.

Perhaps that's why the scariest thought of all is that the Red Sox have the next Kevin Millwood on the books for over $60 million over the next four seasons.

Entering this season, Lackey is 116-82 with a 3.89 ERA. He's averaged 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.7 strikeouts per walk. In 2006, Millwood entered his second season with the Rangers at the same age. He was 123-87 with a 3.85 ERA. His strikeout and walk numbers were also nearly identical.

Like Lackey, Millwood entered the following season in the second year of a lucrative five-year contract.

In the final four years of that deal, Millwood went 36-50 with a 4.72 ERA. His strikeouts fell, while his walks rose -- both symptoms of Lackey's mediocre 2010. All the more reason to keep an eye on those numbers in 2011.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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