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Troubling Signs from Lackey in Boston

Sometimes a team signs a player because they covet him. This is the case with Josh Beckett and the Red Sox, as we discussed yesterday. Other times a team signs a player because he fits into the team’s roster building strategy. The Sox signed John Lackey this off-season because he was the best available pitcher and therefore fit into the pitching and defense schematic. The plan seemed sound. The Red Sox would attack the league with four good to great starters — plus wild card Daisuke Matsuzaka — and back them up with good to great defense at nearly every position. As evidenced by the team’s record and place in the standings, the plan failed. Lackey has certainly played a part in its unraveling.

Signing Lackey seemed like a sound decision at the time. After gaining fame for his World Series Game 7 start in 2002 he went on to pitch five straight seasons with at least 198.1 innings, and in the last three he kept his ERA at 3.56 or below and his FIP in about the same range. He did miss the starts of the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but pitched well upon his returns, notching 163.1 and 176.1 innings with decent ERAs. In 2009 he had a 3.83 ERA, 3.73 FIP, and 3.92 xFIP, which were all pretty close to his career averages. The Sox knew they weren’t getting an ace, but they figured that with a superb defense behind him he could perhaps outperform his peripherals.

In August Matthew described Lackey’s struggles against lefties, a factor that certainly contributed to his poor season. Also contributing is his poor work on the road. In 93 innings away from Fenway Park Lackey has a 4.55 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 4.71 xFIP, compared to a 4.36 ERA, 3.54 FIP, and 4.08 xFIP at home. Overall his strikeout rate is down and his walk rate is up, both at career worsts, and his BABIP, .327, is the highest since 2005. His swinging strike rate is down almost two percentage points from last season and for the first time since 2004 it sits below league average. That can be traced to his O-Swing%, which, while slightly higher than last year, is much worse when compared to the league average. I could continue, but suffice it to say that Lackey has declined in many ways this season.

When looking at baseball players there is an urge to find comparisons. We see this on Baseball Reference pages in two forms, one a general comparison and another comparison to players of the same age. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA formula uses comparable players when computing its projections. And, of course, there’s always the “he’s a young/a poor man’s/the next” player comparison. For the most part we see these comparisons between players with similar skill sets. But with Lackey the most useful comparison might not be someone who shares his size and pitch repertoire, but rather one who has experienced similar career numbers. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the best comparison to Lackey might be A.J. Burnett.

At first it might seem silly to compare the two. Lackey hasn’t thrown fewer than 163.1 innings since 2002 and he has very good control. Burnett has spent plenty of time on the DL since his debut in 1999 and generally has terrible control. Yet as Tommy Bennet showed in December, they had similar career rate stats when they signed similar five-year, $82.5 million contracts. Burnett actually came in a notch above, a 3.81 career FIP against Lackey’s 3.90. Burnett also came out ahead when Bennett compared the weighted averages of their three years before signing long-term contracts, but the two are still close.

Both Burnett and Lackey experienced similar changes with their new clubs. In 2009 Burnett saw his strikeout rate drop, his walk rate jump, and his home run rate increase by a decent amount. A BABIP dip, which put him closer to his career average, helped stave off a disastrous season. Lackey saw the same dip in strikeout rate and spike in walk rate, though with BABIP and home run rate he experienced the opposite effect. Lackey’s ERA has jumped, though his FIP isn’t that much higher than last year. Burnett’s FIP increased significantly, but his ERA remained consistent with his career average. Where both pitchers experienced an increase is in xFIP.

Save for his injury shortened 2003 season, Burnett had never experienced an xFIP over 3.75 — and even then it came in 2002. When he made the move to the Yankees it jumped to 4.29. Since 2004 Lackey has kept his xFIP around 4.00, but in his first year with Boston it has increased to a career high 4.39. Lackey can only hope that, because his xFIP didn’t increase to the same degree that Burnett’s did, that he doesn’t experience a similar sophomore season in Boston as Burnett did in New York. This year Burnett’s xFIP has further increased to 4.60, which matches his FIP and is a bit below his 5.13 ERA.

Lackey does have a few things going for him that might help him avoid the same fate as Burnett. He’s almost two years younger, so we might not see his stuff decline in the same we we have seen from Burnett. He also has historically displayed more control, so if that comes back next season he should be back in form. Burnett might have had his worst season control-wise in 2009, but his control wasn’t that good in previous seasons. But considering the similarities between the two, it has to give Boston a scare that Lackey has performed so poorly in the first year of his contract.