Sunday, September 19, 2010

Thanks, John Lackey

At least during his Friday night shelling at the hands of Toronto, John Lackey didn't give the typical post-loss bit of "I thought I pitched really well today." He actually admitted that he sucked. Yeah. Eight hits, two walks, and three hit batsmen in 4.1 does suck. Which leads me to wonder, what the F is wrong with this guy? Why isn't he fooling anyone? Why can't he find the plate?

Is it a mental thing, a lack of concentration once things start to go wrong? Could be. It's nice that he cares, but maybe he cares too much. Gets too pissed off and pities himself of being victim of bad luck, bad fielding, or bad execution? Who knows.

Either way, look no further than this guy if you want to place on-field blame for the Red Sox' demise this year. They were spitting mad truth on the radio last week: If you are blaming the injuries on the failure of the 2010 Red Sox, that is a cop-out. The team was half a game back on July 3rd, a good week and a half AFTER the entire roster went on its backup generators in San Francisco. The fill-ins weren't tremendous over the course of the entire year, but they performed better than expected - and good enough to keep the team competitive, as evidenced by the July 3rd standings - and their real weaknesses weren't really realized until the regulars started to come back.

The failure of this team cannot be blamed chiefly on Papelbon, because when you have so many close games, you're bound to blow a few. You can blame 3-4 out of the blown saves on his incompetence. The rest of the bullpen you have to spread the blame around. You cannot fault the manager too much this year, and while you can certainly blame the general manager for spending $170 on bad players, we're looking for on-field blame.

Which brings me back to John Lackey. This guy is paid a lot of money to produce at least close to the way he produced in Anaheim. Using a rough stat, his ERA is 0.82 higher in this season than his aggregate ERA in Anaheim. He's walked an extra guy every eighteen innings, he's given up an extra hit every nine innings, and has struck out one fewer guy every nine innings. The best way to keep the ball out of your untrusted defense's hands is to keep the freaking ball out of play. Something Lackey has not done.

If Lackey were to pitch like an ace, if he were to pitch the way he's being paid to pitch, this following jaw-dropping statistic would not be true:

The Red Sox are 14-16 in games he's pitched.

If John Lackey did his job, the team would be roughly 20-10 in games in which he's pitched. A team should be able to win if they score the following totals, all recorded in Lackey starts in which they've lost:

4 against Baltimore
6 against Colorado
5 against Toronto
5 against Cleveland
5 against Toronto
9 against Toronto

The team went 1-3 against Toronto in his starts - Lackey himself went 1-2. But this should not be too much to ask. The guy's being paid eighteen million dollars this year. This should be good enough.

Convert these six losses into wins, and there you are two games back of New York and half a game back of Tampa in a race you're supposed to be in provided you freaking produce. There'd be no talk of bridge years. There'd be no talk of injuries. There'd just be talk about how all they need to do next weekend is win two of three against the Yankees.

And they wouldn't have just lost two of three to Toronto.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

DV

You are correct that Papelbon is not exclusively to blame--I've heard the argument that "if he hadn't blown those seven saves the Sox would be in first place" too many times. For a pitcher to go 43-43 in save opportunities would be amazing. It would be one of the all-time great seasons for a closer. That said, even if he were 39-43 (which is where he should be) the Sox would be right in this thing. The guy has been a massive disappointment, and what's worse, is that I can't think of too many people who are either surprised by his decline, or expecting a bounce-back next year.

But this post is about John Lackey and deservedly so. He has been terrible. He should have to give whatever salary he's made (I'm careful not to use the term "earned") above 94% of the league average (94 is his ERA+ figure) to Lester and Buchholz. Because those guys actually earned their money. And then some.

The scariest part of all of this is that like Papelbon, does anyone expect Lackey to be good next year? Has he shown anyone anything to look forward to in 2011? Any signs of hope? No, he hasn't. He was consistently brutal all year. All I can hope for is that he was injured this year and pitched through it, to his (and the team's) detriment.

The only thing that I can think of that gives me pause about how brutal he'll be next year is his aforementioned competitiveness. If nothing else, the guy has pride. Maybe it'll drive him to be at least serviceable next summer.

--the Gunn

PF said...

i was talking with a knowledgeable sox fan over the weekend, and i asked him which contract he thought was worse between lackey and beckett right now. it's a pretty tough question right now i think, and he seemed to agree as he couldn't come to a definitive answer. the fact that this question can even be posed should give lackey and beckett reason to look in the mirror, not because it's important to figure out which is the worse contract, but because of what they are being asked to do, which is to be #3/4 starters. and they haven't been able to do that.

jon lester is one of the 10 best pitchers in all of baseball, period. this is his third consecutive big season, so we're reaching the point where it's reasonable to expect a big year from him every year. the sox have their ace.

clay buchholz has a number of peripherals and metrics (6.2 k/9, 3.71 FIP, 4.22 xFIP, 6.2% HR/FB rate) that suggest a regression from buchholz. not a huge one, but we shouldn't expect another year of mid 2 era baseball. of course, he could be someone who consistently defies peripherals. he has a high groundball rate so it's certainly possible. it's also possible that he'll start to pitch to better peripherals as he becomes a better, more experienced pitcher, which will counteract some of the regression. we should actually probably expect this to happen. point being, we don't yet know exactly what buchholz is going to be because this is his first major league season. it's the same situation the sox were in with lester 3-4 years ago, the same situation the yankees are in this year with hughes this year, the same situation any team is in with any pitcher in his first full season. we don't have enough data to be able to expect things the way we know can from a lester. with that said, it's reasonable at this stage to project buchholz to slot in behind lester in that rotation as a middle-high, #2/3 pitcher.

either way, i point these things out to show how little lackey and beckett really have to do, relative to what they are being paid to do (which is pitch at a very high level), to help the sox win a lot of baseball games. they don't have to shoulder the load or front the rotation. they just have to pitch at above-average levels in the middle-back of the rotation. if they can't do that, it's easy to see why sox fans have been so frustrated by these guys all of this considered.

the gm at work said...

Gunn,

I can't imagine Lackey being any worse than this year. He has to be better because that's how he's been his entire career. He's had a bit of a down trend on the aggregate, but nothing close to as bad as this year's and nothing nearly as pronounced as Papelbon's descent into mediocrity. The hope you gotta have going into 2011 is that he can't possibly give up as many hits as he's given up. He's given up more hits than Ichiro's had all year (it was in ~200 more plate appearances, but you see my point). A lot of them weren't whacked - so I'd like to know some of the sabermetric stats that would indicate he was at least a little bit unlucky.

Nobody who's performed so well in the past can jump off a cliff this bad, right?

Pat,

Can't agree more. The job, while it is difficult, is something that should be managed well by two guys who have proven somewhat consistently over the course of their careers that they can do this and then some. It's extremely frustrating. When you score five runs and have John Lackey on the mound, you should win the game.

Patrick said...

a quick look at his batted ball data shows they are basically in line with his career norms. that by itself suggests some bad luck, and a .331 babip (.313 career) backs that up. not a lot of bad luck, but some. he also has a 3.94 FIP compared to a 4.63 ERA which also lends itself to pitching better than his actual numbers. however, he's also had some good luck, such as a 7.0% hr/fb rate. this is backed up by a 4.47 xFIP (which adjusts homerun rate to the league average), which is pretty close to his actual era, which lends itself to not pitching much better than his actual numbers.

it would take a closer look to really find out, but i think the totality of this (good luck/bad luck) suggests he hasn't been as good this year because he hasn't pitched quite as well as he usually does. strikeout rate is down, walk rate is up, and that's not usually a good recipe for success. you also have to probably attribute some of his regression to pitching roughly half of his games in a hitters home park and pitching a lot more games in the al east, both of which were not the case previously in his career. the bad news is those things aren't changing anytime soon. the good news is he can improve the way he pitches, which is the key here. i'd say all in all he just has to pitch better.

the gm at work said...

No diggity. So you're telling me he isn't 100% anti-Chien Ming Wang. Guy has to make adjustments. To Josh Beckett's credit, he sorta did that. Sorta.

The declining K rate is haunting, especially seeing that it has continued to creep down for several years now if memory serves me right. But the skyrocketing walk rate (nevermind the HBPs, three of which he had Friday) is what drives me freaking crazy. If you're putting guys on and you're a guy who tends to let up a lot of hits, that's recipe for disaster. But low strikeouts and high walks is enfuriating. The guy needs to regain his command, because when the ball is in the zone, it's getting whacked.

When you're NOT going to leave it up to chance, you damn well better not leave it up to chance because you're striking guys not, not because you're putting guys on automatically.

Patrick said...

i think you really nailed it there gm. if you're a guy that gives up hits, then you better not be giving up walks too. it's more pronounced this year, but lackey has always been a guy who has given up a lot of hits, more than a hit per inning for his career, which is a lot for a guy with pretty good overall numbers. he's been able to manage the hits because for the most part he's kept walks down. walks being up this year is a big part of his decline in performance. as you mentioned, combine that with a reduction in strikeout rate and you have problems.

and let's be honest, whatever the reason, he's giving up more hits than ever, and he's a guy that already gives up a lot of hits. no pitcher in the AL has given up more than lackey's 219. you can be a pitcher that gives up a lot of hits and have a lot of success (see: roy halladay). but you better not be walking anybody (see: roy halladay). however, there also might be a point where, if you aren't roy halladay, which lackey isn't, you are just plain giving up too many hits. i would say lackey is entering that zone.

TimC said...

A lot of good stuff here so far. I just want to touch on the Beckett/Lackey contract comment from PF. My call is Lackey because of two reasons.

One, we all know what Becektt is capable of doing when he is on top form. Even if this is "luck" or a fluke, it happens from time to time and Lackey is incapable of reaching these levels. In other words, whether you believe Beckett is a post-season guy or not, the evidence that people would use to back-up that claim is evidence that Lackey could never produce from this point on because he is simply incapable of reaching the heights reached by Beckett in past playoffs.

Two, Beckett has been in Boston for several years now and any issues he has as a player will be far less likely to be related to the city and more so to his own ability. Lackey, in addition to worrying about his skills, must also have come with some uncertainty about whether he could transition to the big market that Boston is. We'll call this the Renteria Clause.

Now, if you want to just look at numbers and years in a vacuum and ignore the conditions upon signing it is tougher. But I think Beckett is more tradable thanks to those post-seasons and the possibility of a GM somewhere gambling on him reaching those heights again.