THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

A step back is not path for Lackey

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 8, 2011

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From the potato fields of far northern Maine to the glam country clubs of Fairfield County and from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to the “cottages’’ of Newport, a great cry has gone up all over New England.

It is in the form of a question, but it is not so much a complaint as a plea. The problem itself is a given. What people wish to know is if there is any viable solution. Is there anything that can be done aside from allowing the act to be repeated, and repeated, and repeated, perhaps with ever-diminishing results.

What they are all wailing is this: “What are we going to do with John Lackey?’’

To the best of all available knowledge, he will be handed the ball tomorrow night against the Orioles. If a two-month pattern continues, he will be hit hard. If the Red Sox score enough runs, he may get a merciful no-decision, perhaps even a shaky W. But his earned run average will still be over 7 and people will again be nervous whenever he takes the mound for the first time following the All-Star break, and every time thereafter.

Some fans believe they have a solution. They have done a little homework, and they are aware that in the not too distant past two current marquee pitchers with professional issues were sent to the minor leagues, each returning as a different and better pitcher. Given that these two pitchers happen to be Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, these folks think that perhaps what Lackey really needs is a few weeks with the Pawtucket Red Sox.

But what these people need to know is that the situations are not parallel. Of course, what many of the fans want is some sort of punitive effort to begin with, and that will not be forthcoming. Whatever Lackey’s core problems are, he does not need to be punished. That’s not the point.

Halladay was in his fourth year in the Toronto organization when he made it to the bigs at age 21 in 1998. He appeared in 55 games, 31 as a starter, during the next two years, compiling a record of 12-14. He gave up 107 hits in 67 2/3 innings with an ERA of 10.64 in 2000, numbers even worse than Lackey’s this season. When he continued to struggle the following year, he was sent to the minors, where he was placed under the care of renowned Mr. Fix-It Mel Queen. He needed tweaking and maturing, and when he returned to the big leagues in 2002, he immediately became the Roy Halladay we know, going 19-7 with a 2.93 ERA. He was 25, and ready to go.

Lee has a fascinating story. He came out of the University of Arkansas as the fourth pick of the Montreal Expos in the 2000 draft and made it to The Show for a cameo in 2002 and a nine-game appearance in 2003. In 2004, at age 25, he went 14-8, albeit with an ERA (5.43) and a WHIP (1.503) that suggested he was the beneficiary of both excellent run support and a lot of luck. In 2005, however, he went 18-5, 3.79 (again, a bit scary) while finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. The world at large thought he had arrived as a big-time star, but the Indians themselves knew better.

The 2006 season was good but not great (14-11, 4.40, a WHIP of 1.405). The Big Crash came in 2007. He was 5-8 with an ERA of 6.29 and a WHIP of 1.521 when Mark Shapiro, then executive vice president/GM, now president of the Indians, decided Lee needed a return to the minor leagues, which led to his being left off the postseason roster against the Red Sox.

What had happened?

“He was still developing,’’ Shapiro explains. “He was relatively inexperienced. His strikeout ration was down. His batting average against balls in play [BABIP] was misleading. He had a couple of good seasons under his belt, he had not developed that separation between talent and all the little things that make for great success.’’

Lee was 28, an age at which many players think they have nothing more to learn. Lee was different. “He was very willing to go down,’’ says Shapiro.

He got stronger. He worked on his cutter. He realized that he needed to develop a personal accountability. He had always had talent, but now he had become committed to being not just decent, not just a rotation guy, but to becoming a star.

“He developed a pride of accomplishment,’’ explains Shapiro.

Lee came back to the Indians in 2008 and went 22-3, 2.54, with WHIP of 1.110. He won the Cy. Now he is acclaimed as the premier lefthander in baseball. You can search the Baseball Encyclopedia high and low in order to find a similar career arc, but you would be wasting your time. But the key to the story is that he was still young enough, and in possession of tremendous talent, to have growth potential. Going to the minors at that point in his career was beneficial to both his body and his mind.

Shapiro is well aware of what’s going on with John Lackey. He knows that what he did with Lee is not a viable option for Theo Epstein with his problem righthander.

“There’s no parallel,’’ he says.

John Lackey is 32. His talent is his talent. His repertoire is his repertoire. His personality is his personality. As a noted local sage likes to say, the overall Lackey situation “is what it is.’’ If he’s injured, well, that explains some of it. If he is bothered by personal issues, that explains a little more.

Unless they’re planning on converting him to a knuckleball pitcher, sending him to work on his game against the Rochester Red Wings or Toledo Mud Hens is not going to make a difference. (We won’t even discuss minor league options or technical mumbo-jumbo).

Every once in a while, there is something to hang his hat on. Buried next to the seven dismal performances he’s had since April 30 is a nice outing in Philadelphia last Wednesday evening. He found something that night. He needs to find it again.

Tracing paths walked by Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee won’t solve anything. What are we going to do with John Lackey? Watch him and pray. That’s the best advice.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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