Lackey to Red Sox

According to MLB.com’s Ian Browne and Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman, free agent RHP John Lackey has signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the Boston Red Sox.

The 31 year-old has been remarkably consistent, posting xFIP marks of 3.99 in 2007, 3.88 in 2008 and 3.92 in 2009. Lackey has punched out 7.2 batters per nine innings during his big league career, while also displaying plus control with 2.64 BB/9.

Lackey comes at batters with a 90-92 MPH fastball, a low-80′s slider, a high-70′s curveball and a seldom-used low-80′s changeup. His heater is a decent pitch (+0.19 during his career). But his breaking stuff shines. The 6-6, 245 pound righty’s slider has been worth +0.29 runs per 100 tosses, while his curve checks in at +1.03. Lackey’s reluctance to pull the string seems well-grounded (-1.3 runs/100 for the changeup).

Big John’s recent opponent contact rates are middle-of-the-pack (80-81 percent, right around the league average), and his 8.55 swinging strike percentage over the past three seasons is above-average, but not elite (the average for starters is 7.8 percent).

Lackey’s contact rates have been trending upward lately, too:

In-Zone Contact%
2005: 86.3
2006: 88.9
2007: 90.6
2008: 91.3
2009: 91.3

(87-88% MLB average)

Overall Contact%
2005: 76.5
2006: 79.4
2007: 80.3
2008: 81.5
2009: 80.4

Because of the extra contact, it would be wise to expect a few less punch outs in the years to come.

Where Lackey really shines is getting ahead of the hitter: his first-pitch strike percentage from 2007-2009 is 64.5%, which ranks 5th among starters during that time period. He’s adept at putting the hitter in an 0-1 hole, but then he tends to rely on the batter’s impatience. Lackey’s overall percentage of pitches within the strike zone is just 46.5% since 2007, compared to the 49-51% MLB average. Hitters are chasing a lot of those out-of-zone offerings, though: Lackey’s outside-swing percentage from 2007-2009 is 29.7%. That ranks 6th among starters over that period.

Lackey averaged nearly 211 innings pitched per season from 2003-2007, but he has experienced some health issues over the past two years. He hit the DL with a triceps strain in 2008, delaying the start of his season until mid-May and limiting him to 163.1 IP. In 2009, Lackey suffered a right forearm strain that also kept him from toeing the rubber until the middle of May. He tossed 176.1 frames this past season.

The move from Angel Stadium to Fenway Park will likely hurt Lackey’s numbers a bit:

Three-year park factors for Angel Stadium and Fenway (data courtesy of ESPN.com)

Angel Stadium
Runs:1.04
HR: 1.01
H: 1.03
2B: 1.06
3B: 0.72

Fenway Park
Runs: 1.11
HR: 0.90
H: 1.06
2B: 1.44
3B: 0.87

Angel Stadium has played like a slight hitter’s park over the past few years, increasing run scoring by four percent. Fenway, meanwhile, has inflated run scoring by 11 percent compared to a neutral ball park. Homers are hard to come by for righties, but the Green Monster is a doubles-making machine.

If the terms of the deal are correct, then the Red Sox are valuing Lackey as something like a four WAR per season pitcher moving forward. It’s a mark he easily surpassed from 2005-2007, and basically matched in 2009. But there are certainly risks inherent in handing out a five-year deal to a guy who hasn’t been healthy enough to throw a pitch in April in each of the past two seasons. Perhaps the biggest mistake teams make is handing out free agent deals based on past performance.

Overall, Lackey’s contract seems like a gamble by Boston. But given the club’s deep coffers and position on the win curve, it’s defensible. As Dave Cameron explained, each additional win added to a team on the cusp of the playoffs is extremely valuable. The Rays have an absurd collection of young talent and a canny front office. The Yankees are coming off a World Series win. A.L. East baseball is not for the faint of heart.

Fantasy owners shouldn’t hesitate to draft Lackey relatively high entering next season. Luckily, you only have to worry about how he’ll perform in 2010, not 2014. His value takes a slight ding with the move to Fenway, and his health problems are mildly disconcerting. But Lackey still looks like a top 30-40 starter for 2010.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


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