The New John Lackey

Earlier this season, while writing a piece on Rick Porcello’s breakout, I noticed he was mixing a certain combination of skills that seemed both interesting and valuable. He was striking out more than 7 hitter per 9, walking fewer than 2, and also inducing a ground ball rate above 50%. The story with Porcello was the increase in strikeouts, but it also put him in some excellent company. Going back to 2002 (when GB% becomes available) the list of qualifying pitchers to meet those criteria is short and impressive. Roy Halladay (4), Chris Carpenter (3), and Cole Hamels (1). Porcello is doing it this year and so is John Lackey. And Lackey’s story might be the most interesting.

(Note: K% and BB% tell a similar story, the cut-offs are just harder to express and are not the real focus of the article.)

Porcello’s key was an improved changeup and new curveball that induced more strikeouts, but Lackey has actually improved his numbers in all three categories pretty dramatically. Even if we accept that Lackey’s 2011 numbers were depressed due to the coming injury, if you take his career numbers and place them next to his 2013 season, the change is quite interesting.

2002-2012 1876 7.03 2.73 0.91 0.309 43.20% 9.10% 4.10 3.91 4.08 34.7
2013 106 8.44 1.94 1.18 0.290 50.80% 14.70% 2.95 3.64 3.18 2.1

At 32, Lackey is getting better. Certainly he had some excellent seasons from 2005-2007 when he exceeded 5.0 WAR for three straight years, but this performance is quite something. He’s getting more strikeouts than in all but one year of his career and he’s posting the best walk rate and highest ground ball rate in his career by substantial margins. The results are better if you look at ERA, FIP, and xFIP as he’s never had a lower ERA or xFIP and only bested this year’s FIP during that run from 2005-2007.

Lackey is having a career renaissance. But the interesting thing on the surface is that Lackey’s velocity isn’t much different and his pitch selection isn’t either. He’s got the same repertoire and it seems to be of the same quality. But looks can be deceiving.

A word is needed up front regarding pitch classification. Pitch F/X seems to think he’s throwing a different mix of pitches, but it’s actually just classifying them differently. You can see in the two charts below, from 2011 and 2013, that the velocity and horizontal movements are quite similar, but the pitches are being called something different.

Lackey Velocity, H-Movement in 2011

Lackey Velocity, H-Movement in 2013

His velocity isn’t much different from his rough 2011 campaign and the location of the pitches aren’t terribly different either. He’s routinely working low and away to both RHH and LHH this year just like he did in 2011.

This doesn’t seem to be about stuff or location, and this isn’t an increase in performance driven by BABIP because the indicators I’m looking at are entirely within the pitcher’s control This is an analysis about an increase in strikeouts, a decrease in walks, and an improvement in GB%. Lackey is getting better results because he’s doing well in those categories. Yet he’s not throwing harder and he’s not throwing much differently than he did in one of his worst years.

Well, not so fast. There is one key difference that I’ve been able to find and I think it can explain why Lackey is doing so much better. Let me start by pointing out some even more interesting tidbits. First, Lackey is throwing fewer pitches in the zone overall while inducing much less contract overall with virtually the same swing percentage as in 2011. His first-pitch strikes are up but are not much different than his career norms. Lackey is getting more swings and misses, which could point to the strikeout increase. But Lackey is also hitting the zone less often, which means a good portion of the walk decline is coming from batters swinging at pitches outside the zone. That all makes sense to some degree.

Lackey is getting more swings and misses via pitches out of the zone, so his strikeouts are up and his walks are down. But the increase in GB% is the aspect about which I was most curious and it fits in with what I believe is cause the strikeout and walk transformation.

Lackey isn’t throwing harder, the ball isn’t moving more horizontally, and the general location of his pitches haven’t changed. What has changed is the vertical movement on a subset of his pitches. It’s hard to notice when you’re looking at season averages, but graphically it is quite striking. In certain situations, Lackey throws a variation of his fastball and cut fastball that moves with the same velocity and horizontal movement as normal, but with more vertical break. It’s almost like having another pitch that Pitch F/X doesn’t understand. Take a look and remember he’s thrown fewer pitches overall in 2013, so the cluster stands out even more:

Lackey Velocity, V-Movement in 2011

Lackey Velocity, V-Movement in 2013

I’m not a leading expert on Pitch F/X or pitching in general, but this is the kind of thing that catches my attention. Lackey’s pitches don’t seem different overall, but there is a group of them that are acting differently. The increased downward break is likely to blame for more ground balls and I can certainly imagine it’s part of what’s driving the strikeouts via hitters swinging and missing on pitches they didn’t except to drop so much.

In analyzing this particular cluster of fastballs, the results were striking. Of 86 such pitches, 27 were called balls, 17 were called strikes, 19 were fouled off, 10 were swung at and missed, 3 were hit for singles, and 10 resulted in ground outs. When Lackey throws this pitch, the worst thing that happens is a single and even those are pretty rare. If we consider this pitch in context, during at bats in which he threw one of these pitches, he walked 14 hitters, struck out 28, induced 3 line outs, got 33 groundouts, and allowed just eight hits. All singles.

I haven’t watched many Lackey starts, so Red Sox fans might be able to speak more confidently on the subject, but it appears as if Lackey has turned himself into one of these special pitchers who can maintain high K%, low BB%, and a high GB%. We only have a couple of months of data, so this could still vanish from in front of our eyes.

My interest in Lackey, Porcello, and these pitchers at large comes from my belief in DIPS theory, but also a more general belief that limiting walks and extra base hits will help prevent runs and a pitcher can play a role in limiting extra base hits even if some of it is out of their control. If you’re inducing ground balls when you allow contact, you’re not going to get hurt nearly as often. Whether you like metrics like SIERA for this, or simply like to read FIP alongside GB%, it makes good sense.

John Lackey is becoming one of those guys. Along with Porcello (and Fister and Felix who have been hovering around these somewhat arbitrary cutoffs), he is headed for the club occupied only by Doc, Carpenter, and Hamels. I can’t tell you how often this happened prior to 2002, but the fact that only one of the eight recorded seasons is anything short of great makes me think this is worth tracking. The specific numbers aren’t hugely important, but they allowed me to discover the new and improved John Lackey.

He gets more strikeouts, allows fewer walks, and induces more ground balls. He’s had a bit of a rough stretch since his peak five years ago, but with this new approach, and occasionally different fastball, John Lackey is pitching himself back into the upper reaches of the American League.

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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Interesting. I love looking at PITCHf/x data like this. And I just traded for Lackey, so I’m feeling better about it now.
One suggestion: embed your graphs! Or if you’re technically challenged like me, just take screenshots and put them in (that’s what I did in my recent Josh Willingham article). It adds color, breaks up the text to make it look less daunting to a prospective reader, and saves us the effort of going back and forth between different tabs.
Otherwise, great article. Good observations and analysis!