John Lackey Inks with Boston

A couple hours after reports surfaced stating the John Lackey was taking a physical with the Boston Red Sox, the rumors are now saying that a contract has been reached between the two. Jon Heyman writes that it’s a five-year deal worth $85 million.

As a fan of a team (the Mariners) linked to just about every free agent on the market, and in particular to John Lackey, I’ve been skeptical of his value all winter long. There are two main red flags that I have when it comes to Lackey.

First is health. Profiled as a top of the rotation arm, Lackey has made just 51 starts the last two seasons, averaging 170 innings. Before that he was more durable sure, but on the wrong side of 30, I lean more toward recent history than past when it comes to injury risk.

Second comes with Lackey’s pitch results. More of his pitches have been resulting in balls lately and dropping rates in finding the strike zone and in starting hitters off with a strike portend a rise in the amount of walks that he allows, long his strong suit. More worrisome to me is this: 10.2%, 9.7%, 8.8%, 8.5%, 8.3%. Those are Lackey’s swinging strike rates from 2005 to 2009 in chronological order. That is a downward trend and not a subtle one either. In other words, projecting Lackey, I’d expect slightly more walks and considerably fewer strikeouts.

John Lackey‘s tRAs have ranged from 3.7 to 3.9 to 5.5 and back down to 4.5 over the last four seasons, a difficult path to project. His xFIPs (and tRA*s) on the other hand, regressing his fluctuating home run rates, peg Lackey at a consistent 4.1, 4.0, 3.9, 3.9 from 2006 through 2009. That’s a much easier trend to deal with.

That trend, with the other information above leads me to think that Lackey is about a 4.1-4.2 FIP pitcher going forward. CHONE’s projection agrees mostly, seeing Lackey at a 4.1 FIP and 186 innings. That amount of production is worth about 3.2 wins, roughly a little less than Lackey’s 2007-9 average on a 5/4/3 weight, reasonable for an aging pitcher.

You cannot assume Lackey holds on that 3.2 WAR level either and over five years, you’re probably looking at a total expected contribution of three wins per year, or 15 wins in total. At the slightly depressed market value for wins and with the long term contract discount, a roughly fair number for Lackey at five years would be about $60 million.

Now, as Dave Cameron brought up a few days ago, not every team should pay the same rate for wins. The Red Sox are in a similar position as the Rays wherein each additional win means more to them. Also, they’re a super high budget team with the resources to offer more money per win. Even still, this looks like a vast overpay in terms of annual value. And possibly worse than that is guaranteeing five years to a pitcher, much less for his age 31-35 seasons.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.