The Rejuvenation of John Lackey

While Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have been the focus of the turnaround among Boston’s starting pitchers, their success shouldn’t be that surprising, as both are in the primes of their careers and always had the stuff to be frontline starters. However, there is one Red Sox pitcher enjoying a career rejuvenation that wasn’t so easy to see coming; the beleaguered John Lackey is pitching like it’s 2005 all over again.

Lackey’s first three years in Boston couldn’t have gone much worse. Signed to an $82.5 million contract after the 2009 season, Lackey came to Boston in 2010 and started throwing batting practice. By the time he finally told everyone his elbow hurt in mid-2011, he had accumulated a 5.25 ERA in 375 innings, and then spent the next year and a half recovering from Tommy John surgery. The first three years of Lackey’s Red Sox career were basically a total loss, and his personality didn’t exactly endear him to the Red Sox Nation.

However, they do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after being away from the team for 18 months, Lackey showed up in 2013 determined to get his career back on track. It’s only six starts so far, but not only is he pitching like the John Lackey of old, but he’s actually pitching better than he did in his heyday in Anaheim.

Through his first 33 innings of 2013, Lackey has a 22.9% strikeout rate, which if he sustained it all year, would be the highest of his career. The league average strikeout rate has been trending upwards for a while now, so relative to league average, his 22.3% K% of 2005 would be slightly better, but that was one of only two seasons where Lackey has ever struck out more than 20% of the batters he faced.

He was a good pitcher in Anaheim because he was durable, he didn’t walk anyone, and he kept the ball in the yard. Strikeouts weren’t really a huge part of his game. Before this season, his Boston-era strikeout rate was just 16%. A 23% strikeout rate is a huge jump over what Lackey was doing to opposing hitters before the surgery.

Interestingly enough, though, Lackey’s stuff appears to be almost exactly the same as it was before he went under the knife. This isn’t a case where his velocity has jumped up following surgery. Here are Lackey’s average fastball velocities for the last three years he’s been on the mound:

2010: 91.1 mph
2011: 91.5 mph
2013: 90.9 mph

And, no, he hasn’t really added a new pitch either. Lackey still throws two fastballs (four-seam and two-seam), a slider, a curve, and a change-up, just like he always has. He’s throwing his curveball a little less than in the past, but not dramatically so, and usually increasing your fastball rate at the expense of your breaking ball will reduce your strikeout rate, not increase it. So, how is Lackey getting all these strikeouts with the same stuff he’s always had?

It starts with strike one. Lackey has thrown a first pitch strike 67% of the time this season, ranking him third in the American League behind only Phil Hughes and Jake Peavy. Hughes’ presence on top of the list should tell you that this isn’t a foolproof magic plan to striking everyone out, but Lackey’s ability to consistently get ahead of major league hitters has given him control of the at-bat in ways he he didn’t have before.

Here are the splits for hitters against Lackey depending on the type of count that the at-bat ends in:

Batter ahead: 38 PA, .241/.395/.448
Even count: 52 PA, .333/.346/.529
Pitcher ahead: 50 PA, .160/.160/.160

36% of the batters who have faced Lackey this year have ended up in a pitcher friendly count before either putting the ball in play or striking out, and Lackey has just dominated hitters who aren’t able to look for one pitch in one location. Lackey has taken full advantage of the expanded strike zone that comes from hitters having to swing defensively.

Compare that with what he did in his first year in Boston, in those same situations.

Batter ahead: 311 PA, .277/.447/.430
Even count: 330 PA, .297/.300/.446
Pitcher ahead: 289 PA, .255/.267/.401

Only 31% of his 2010 opponents had to end their at-bats in a pitcher’s count, and even when Lackey was able to get ahead of them, he didn’t really take advantage. Opponents put up a .600 OPS against Lackey in two strike counts back in 2010, the situation where the hitter should be at his most vulnerable. This year? Opponents have a .268 OPS against Lackey with two strikes.

While some still advocate pitching to contact in order to save your arm and reduce the amount of pitches thrown, Lackey has brought his career back to life by going the other way entirely. By getting ahead of hitters and then putting them away when he gets into strikeout situations, Lackey has given the Red Sox six starts that would fit in well at the peak of his career. If he keeps pounding the zone and getting hitters to chase when behind in the count, the second half of his career in Boston could be a resounding success.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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3 years 4 months ago

Hi Dave,

Is there anything behind the dramatic difference in PitchFX classification of Lackey’s pitch selection this year? PitchFX data shows him throwing 55% four seam fastballs, 24% cutters, and ~5% sliders this year. This is dramatically different than his pitch selection in 2010 (15% four seamer, 42% cutter, 9% slider) and 2011 (~15% four seamers, 35% cutters, and 22% sliders). According to PitchFX, his 2013 selection is back in line with his time with the Angels.

I should note there are significant discrepancies between the PitchFX classification and the other “pitch type” data on fangraphs, so it may simply be bad data. But it caught my eye. Cheers,