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What's behind John Lackey's surge?

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  August 12, 2011 04:08 PM

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There’s probably not a player on the Red Sox roster who’s inspired more remote control throws and hair-pulling in the Greater Boston area this year than pitcher John Lackey. Yet during the last month, he’s been, well, pretty good, posting a 5-0 record with a 3.58 ERA since July 9. This has been all the more welcome given the loss of Clay Buchholz; more than ever, the Sox now need solid production from the back of their rotation, especially heading into a likely postseason berth.

So which will we get the rest of the season: the newly revitalized Lackey, or the guy who sported a 7-plus ERA before his recent resurgence?

First 13 starts: 5-8, 7.47 ERA, 1.631 WHIP, 1.67 K/BB

Last six starts: 5-0, 3.58 ERA, 1.354 WHIP, 6.2 K/BB

The Promising: The most telling statistics underlying Lackey’s improvement are the increased strikeout numbers and decreased walk rate. These are two of the best indicators for evaluating the true nature of a pitcher’s performance, as they’re two of the stats he can most consistently control. It’s become accepted wisdom in the statistical community that pitchers actually have very limited influence over what happens to a batted ball once it’s put in play; whether a ball falls in for a hit or not generally has more to do with defense and simple chance than a pitcher’s ability.

However, the pitcher’s ability has quite a lot to do with keeping balls from being put in play in the first place (strikeouts) and cheaply putting runners on base (walks), categories in which Lackey has been much more efficient of late.

Lackey’s subpar numbers to this point may also be the result of plain bad luck. As alluded to earlier, a pitcher’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is largely dictated by factors outside his control, but it usually hovers close to the MLB average of about .295. Under this assumption, Lackey’s been extraordinarily unlucky, posting a career high .332 BABIP, which puts him in the 95th percentile for pitchers with over 100 innings this year.

That number can’t be pinned on the defense, either—the Red Sox' staff BABIP is only .281. It’s possible that Lackey’s fortunes could turn. Regression of this number toward the mean, and thus fewer baserunners, would be reflected as a decrease in runs allowed.

The Ominous: A trend that doesn't bode well for Lackey, and can explain much of his poor performance this season, is the rate at which he’s allowed fly balls. Over his career, Lackey has shown a slightly above-average ability to avoid them; from 2004 to 2010, he recorded a mean ground ball-to-fly ball ratio (GB/FB) of 1.24, compared to the MLB average of around 1.10. In 2011, his GB/FB stands at a paltry 0.94.

Why is this a problem? Well, when’s the last time you saw a bouncing ball leave the park (besides on a blooper reel)? Fly balls are more likely to enhance run production; they go for extra base hits far more often than ground balls. And they’re especially dangerous at an offensively inclined park like Fenway. It’s no wonder hitters are slugging .478 off Lackey this year (career average: .408).

Before we attribute too much of Lackey’s struggles to bad luck, note that 22 percent of the balls put in play off Lackey are line drives, the highest number since his rookie season. His pitches may just be sitting nicely on tees for opposing hitters, making his inflated BABIP an indication of decreased effectiveness rather than a pattern of bad breaks. Though he’s allowed fewer fly balls lately (1.03 GB/FB in his last six starts), he’s still been afflicted by a high line drive rate (23 percent) — not the medicine needed to continue his recovery.

The Verdict: The rest of Lackey’s season — whether late-season charge or relapse — will hinge primarily on these key statistics. If he’s able to punch out batters, reduce his free passes, and keep the ball on the ground, the chances are good that he’ll end the season on this current upswing and start to look a bit more like the pitcher signed from Anaheim in 2009.

If not, Sox fans may find themselves replacing yet another set of television accessories.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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