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What’s Wrong With Lackey?

John Lackey (courtesy masslive.com)

As Carl Crawford rounded the bases on Sunday, John Lackey could only watch as the lead, and perhaps the 2010 season, slipped away.

When the Sox signed John Lackey to an 82.5-million dollar mega-deal in the offseason, I thought it was a fantastic move. I have followed Lackey’s career since his rookie season, seen him win Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie, and watched him masterfully shut down the Boston offense in last year’s playoffs. The guy has been one of baseball’s most underrated pitchers; between 2005 and 2009 he posted a 69-38 record with a sub-4.00 ERA. In 2007, he was better than Josh Beckett and Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia, quietly leading the AL in ERA while posting a career high 19 wins.

What’s made Lackey regress in effectiveness isn’t obvious to the casual observer. When I’ve watched him pitch this year, I was impressed by his off-speed pitches and figured his velocity was the same as in past years. Upon doing some research, I was wrong. Lackey’s average velocity the past three seasons was 91.3 mph, but this season it has dropped to 90.5. That’s a difference of a mile per hour, which can make a huge difference, but shouldn’t be totally crippling.

Why the Problems?

I decided to keep investigating Lackey’s struggles, and found a tremendous bit of info courtesy of Toooast.com, via a database called PitchFX. Bear with me here, because I’m about to delve deeper than I ever have into advanced sabermetrics. We’re about to boldly go where no man has gone before, to quote Star Trek (I doubt even Mr. Spock could analyze some of these stats, but I digress).

According to Toooast.com: “PitchFx can also show us how frequently a pitcher throws his pitches. For instance, in 2007, Lackey threw his fastball 59.2% of the time. In 2008 it was exactly the same, 59.2%. In 2009 it dropped to 51.1%. This year, John Lackey is throwing his fastball 19% of the time. That can’t be right, can it?”

I was stunned; a 40% decrease? What?? The explanation was that the PitchFX database lists 36.7% of his pitches as cut-fastballs, a disturbing and seemingly impossible 34% increase from his stellar 2007 campaign.

There is also a very obscure stat known as Pitch Run Values, which attempt to measure how valuable a certain pitch is to a pitcher. Thanks to our friend on Toooast.com, we now know that Lackey’s cutter has been worth -54.46 runs per 100 pitches. I don’t understand this stat fully, but that number just looks absolutely terrifying. What these stats seem to show is that Lackey took an amazingly ineffective pitch and inexplicably began using it 34% more often over the past three years. Yikes.

If this trend of bad pitch selection from Lackey continues along with the decrease in his velocity, the Sox are screwed. What’s even worse is that despite all this statistical mayhem, Lackey still has an ERA two runs lower than Josh Beckett’s. Basically, the Sox just paid $18 million a piece to two guys who have been their worst two starters (not including Tim Wakefield).

What’s worse is that unlike Eternal Tim, they’re not going anywhere for a while because of their contracts. If they don’t bounce back in 2011 and beyond, we’re going to have to hope that Casey Kelly is the second coming of Roy Halladay.

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