As John Lackey readied to take the mound Monday night in Seattle, opposite Felix Hernandez, the storylines centered on a pitching matchup that featured two of the last month’s three best American League pitchers.
King Felix is perpetually in that class, while Lackey had thrust himself into that category with a complete-game shutout in his previous start — dropping his ERA below 3 for the season, and seeming to amplify the building sentiment that the Red Sox should tack a couple more years onto the right-hander’s contract rather than make him pitch for the minimum salary next season. With its bats scuffling, and a West Coast trip off to a rough start, it was with relative confidence that Boston turned to a 35-year-old hoping he could help get things righted.
There was just one issue with that faithful assumption: The Sox were facing the Mariners. The Mariners have a winning record. And against teams currently at .500 or better, Lackey hasn’t been anywhere near a top-of-the-rotation starter this season.
So while it might’ve been surprising to see Lackey surrender seven hits and seven runs Monday night, yanked after 3.2 innings in his shortest outing of the year, it wasn’t totally unforeseen against an enemy of the Mariners’ ilk. With those brutal numbers incorporated, Lackey’s earned run average against winning opponents is now exactly triple of what it is against losing clubs, spiking to 5.13 against better competition compared to a sterling 1.71 against the dregs.
It’s not just his ERA, either. In nine starts against winning teams, opponents have posted an .804 OPS against Lackey, bolstered by a .296 batting average, and a .333 on-base percentage that’s 90 points better than the excellent .243 rate he’s allowed the losers. Meanwhile, the slugging percentage of enemy hitters increases by more than 150 percent, as you can see here, along with other numbers courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
|WP lt .500||4||1||.800||1.71||7||1||52.2||41||10||2||8||39||0.930||6.7||4.88|
|WP of .500+||4||4||.500||5.13||9||0||54.1||66||31||7||13||54||1.454||8.9||4.15|
|WP lt .500||203||192||41||7||2||2||.214||.243||.302||.545||58||5||.255||60||57|
|WP of .500+||237||223||66||16||1||7||.296||.333||.471||.804||105||4||.362||134||123|
Extra-base hits are more numerous. Baserunners come easier. His average start is almost four outs shorter. His strikeout rates do actually increase — but still at the expense his strikeout-to-walk ratio. The difference is marked.
In Lackey’s defense, some of this may be attributable to the significant difference in batting average on balls in play, which suggests some degree of bad luck may shoulder some of the blame. And he has turned in several quality starts against teams in the thick of the playoff race, including six innings of two-run ball against both the Orioles and Athletics; eight innings of one run ball against against the Yankees; eight innings in which he allowed two earned runs against the Tigers; and 6.1 scoreless innings against the Braves.
However, against Baltimore, New York, and Detroit his ledger also includes a second start in which he yielded at least six runs. (He’s only faced Oakland and Atlanta once each.) That indicates inconsistency, which makes outings like Monday’s a real possibility — and may begin to call into question the wisdom of quickly jumping to sign a new deal that would extend his time with the Sox.
For the right price, sure. Since returning from Tommy John surgery, Lackey has generally proven his worth; he’s arguably been the team’s best regular-season pitcher over the past year and a half, and he was nails in the postseason, too. If he doesn’t out-duel Justin Verlander in Game 3 of the ALCS, the Sox quite possibly don’t get past that series. On top of that, he’s been excellent at Fenway Park, thus far following last year’s 2.47 ERA with a 2.77.
But this trend of Lackey struggling against the better teams isn’t new. Every season in which he’s pitched since 2009, which was his final year in Los Angeles, his ERA has been at least 1.3 runs higher against teams .500 or better than it was against everyone else. Totaled up, his ERA over that span is 5.26 against clubs that at least break even, compared to 3.00 against that lose more than they win.
Logically, pitchers should perform better against bad teams. The bad teams are bad for a reason, of course, as Red Sox fans fear they may be finding out this season. However, league-wide the difference has not nearly been as dramatic as Lackey’s personal numbers. The American League’s collective ERA slides from 3.77 to 4.09; the batting average from .248 to .258; the OPS from .703 to .725; the WHIP from 1.30 to 1.33.
So Lackey is the outlier. It’s hardly a reason to run from the guy, given his standing in the clubhouse, his competitive spirit, his strike-throwing abilities. But as the Sox evaluate their forward-looking options with to a pitcher who’ll turn 36 in October, his performance against the teams they’re trying to catch — even against a mediocre attack like the Mariners’ — is something the club had better consider.