There’s no way to know how often players push through injuries they shouldn’t; it certainly happens with some frequency, but the times when one can pinpoint the exact moment a player should have been placed on the disabled list and wasn’t are few and far between.
I have no idea when in 2011 John Lackey tore his ulnar collateral ligament – if my life depended on guessing, I could talk myself into a late July tear, which would mean he made an additional 11 or 12 starts carrying an injury that used to be career-threatening – but I do know that it affected his performance rather negatively. The problem is that there’s still not a good way to determine how much of his abominable 2011 was due to the injury and how much was simply a bad season.
That uncertainty has to be a major part of the reason that a pitcher with a 1.13 WHIP, a 2.72 ERA, and a 24 percent strikeout rate is owned in just 27 percent of ESPN leagues and 29 percent of Yahoo! leagues. I’ll admit to being a bit gunshy myself with Lackey, but the he’s not pulling great results out of nothing; the peripherals all look like they ought to for sustained success. He’s allowing line drives at a rate just below his career average and generating far more groundballs, nearly 54 percent of all his balls in play, which is what’s keeping his BABIP around .280. There could be some regression toward his career average of .308 later this season, but the fact that he’s getting opponents to swing at nearly a third of his pitches out of the zone means that he’s generating plenty of weak contact rather than a lot of hard-hit balls that his defense happens to reach.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about Lackey’s profile right now is his strikeout rate. In 2005, Lackey struck out 22 percent of the hitters he faced, then had that rate drop every season through 2011 (or 2012 if you want to penalize him a little more for missing a full season) down to a low of 14.5 percent. He’s currently fanning 24 percent of the hitters who face him, and while I’m skeptical he’ll finish the year at that level, he is missing more bats than he has since 2009 and hitters are taking more of his pitches in the strike zone than they ever have before. It’s hard to find a better underpinning for sustainability in strikeout rate than extra missed bats and more called strikes.
Lackey’s retooled pitch selection seems to be the base for his improvements. During his first two seasons with the Red Sox, Lackey worked primarily off a cut fastball and either a curve or a slider, but this season he has gone back to using his four-seam fastball as his primary offering. His velocity is a hair lower than it has been in previous years, but since he’s never been an overpowering pitcher, I don’t see that being as problematic as it can be for pitchers who really need the extra tick or two to keep from being pounded. Lackey’s increased use of the four-seam, even at the lower speed, has made his cutter and curveball look that much more effective by keeping hitters off balance. I’ll be interested to see if hitters adjust to his change in offerings as the season progresses, but they haven’t so far.
Much about Lackey looks like the pitcher who was a solid starter for the Angels prior to 2010, but with the added benefit of extra strikeouts, which round out his profile rather nicely. Every good start he has will make him that much harder to get, and I don’t see the Phillies, who he faces in his next start, being the team to knock him off his cloud just yet. If his June 4 start against the Rangers goes even decently well, Lackey could be nearly impossible to grab off the wire.