One game for all the marbles. Who would you start if you were Red Sox manager John Farrell?
It’s safe to say John Lackey is no longer the guy with the 5.26 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, who Sox fans painstakingly watched every fifth day over his first two seasons in Boston from 2010-11.
The downright dreadful performances and chicken-and-beer clubhouse gatherings of that last season, culminated by a historic September collapse, were greeted blissfully by a lost 2012 campaign. While fans and media were trying to figure out how in the world to get the former Angels star and his hefty five-year, $82.5 million contract out of town, the rehabbing righty was out to prove doubters wrong after undergoing Tommy John surgery to correct an injury he probably shouldn’t have been pitching with in the first place.
Two years later – and one after a dominant return to the game in which he went 10-13 with a 3.52 ERA before pitching Boston to a World Series victory – the 35-year-old is pitching like he’s 10 years younger and with an even better ERA, command, and strikeout dominance than he displayed during his lone All-Star season in 2007, when he went 19-9 with a 3.01 ERA to lead the American League. That season, Lackey finished third in the AL’s Cy Young voting.
In 2014, on the cusp of turning 36 in October, he’s been even better.
Lackey is 8-4 with a career-best 2.96 ERA over 103 1/3 innings. In his 15 starts, he’s walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings, also a personal low, and he’s struck out 7.8 opponents per nine, his most since a 7.9 total in 2006.
However, Lackey is still not his team’s ace.
I know, those words sound laughable after Wednesday’s man-handling of the Twins, when the veteran worked nine innings of shutout baseball and allowed only three hits and a walk while fanning nine.
The question here is: How would you define an ace?
Personally, I view an ace as the guy I’d put on the mound with the season on the line. Pretty cut and dried.
In this case – one that is far more 1A and 1B than it is 1 and 2 – I’d choose Lackey second to Jon Lester and I’d do so without hesitation.
The 30-year-old Lester is 8-7 with a 3.20 ERA over 98 1/3 frames. He’s struck out 9.6 batters per nine and walked 2.3 in his 15 starts. His record would be better if not for a lack of run support. Last year, as you likely remember, the southpaw went 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 2013, but that was only part of the story.
Lester’s career postseason brilliance continued with a 4-1 display over five starts in 2013. His stats were mind-numbing in his 34 2/3 innings: a 1.56 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP, and a .560 opponent’s OPS. Often, he looked even better. Basically par for the course for a two-time champion with a 6-4 lifetime record, 2.11 ERA, and 1.04 WHIP in 13 playoff appearances.
That’s not to shortchange Lackey’s efforts. Also a two-time champ (he was similarly terrific for Los Angeles as a rookie in 2002), he was also 4-1 in his five appearances over 26 innings, with a 1.19 WHIP and .595 opponent’s OPS. The righty out-dueled the Tigers’ Justin Verlander in 1-0 ALCS game for the ages, and followed that up with three World Series outings, including the start in the Game 6 clincher.
Throughout 2013, from Opening Day to the beer-soaked clubhouse celebration, Lackey was Boston’s most consistent pitcher. That’s continued right into 2014, where he’s allowed three earned runs or fewer in 10 of his last 11 starts and posted a 1.60 ERA over his prior six.
Lester has been very consistent as well, pitching great save for basically one bad start per month (of four or five). Still, he has the more imposing stuff which, coupled with his age, is why he’s in line for a sizable raise by the winter.
Lackey could simply be a better version of himself since the surgery, he could be motivated for a new contract or, more likely, it’s a nice mixture of both that’s elevated his performance and maybe even his work ethic.
It’s awfully difficult to envision the vet pitching for his contractually agreed upon $500,000 in 2015 (a clause that kicked into his deal when he missed all of 2012 to injury), but it’s equally hard to imagine him retiring – as previously reported as a possibility by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal – with so much visibly left in the tank.
Smart money says Lackey and Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington will work out a new contract that either includes a back-loaded second year in 2016 or an entirely new contract worth in excess of $20 million for the next two seasons. Lackey won’t be traded at the deadline and he won’t be taking his talents to Japan out of refusal to pitch for the minimum.
Cherington did speak on that topic on Thursday’s “Dennis & Callahan Show” on WEEI and, with the anticipated posturing, said, “My feeling about John is that he's a outstanding competitor, outstanding teammate, he's been an excellent pitcher and a huge part of our success last year. He's been outstanding this year and given the way he's pitching, and given what I know of him as a competitor and as a teammate, how much he likes being in a clubhouse, playing this game and competing, I would expect he's gonna want to continue doing that. The contract is the contract and we agreed to a contract back in 2010, whenever it was, and you know when you agree to a contract, both sides venture into it and so we... there's really not that much more to say about it. We're glad he's with us and we expect him to come in and continue pitching next year."
Here’s something I never expected to feel a couple years ago: I sure hope Cherington’s right!
Perhaps next year, should Lester opt to leave in free agency, Lackey will be the ace of the staff. But, until then, the lefty’s stuff, age, and history in the postseason give him the edge, even if it is just a minor one in a debate Red Sox fans are fortunate to be able to have.
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