Don't count on John Lackey

by: Kirk Minihane on Tue, 02/19/2013 - 9:09am

Are you enjoying the John Lackey Redemption Tour?

The puffy, surly, unapologetic owner of a 26-23 record and 5.26 ERA in his first two seasons in Boston has seemingly been replaced by a John Lackey with a new elbow, new attitude and a physical transformation usually associated with the season finale of "The Biggest Loser." 

We all know the backstory: The Red Sox spent $82.5 million on Lackey in December 2009 (I get confused -- are we supposed to blame this one on Theo Epstein or was this one on ownership?) and he has been, to date, a historic bust. He was merely lousy in 2010 -- a 4.40 ERA and career-worst 1.42 WHIP -- but that season was Bob Gibson in 1968 when placed next to his 2011 season, a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts, the single worst year ever by a Red Sox starting pitcher, which is kind of remarkable when you realize his contract pays him more than any pitcher in franchise history.

Almost as damning for Lackey as the numbers was his reaction to the failure, defiance somehow mixed with indifference. He would show up teammates, his manager and after the game would take offense when the media had the gall to ask when exactly it went wrong over the three-inning, 11-run performance. 

And after Lackey was exposed by Bob Hohler and cast as one of the faces (or chins, really) of Chicken and Beer it was a cause for celebration when he had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Lackey was so ineffective on the mound and perceived as such a problem off it that everyone agreed life would be better without him around. It's not a reach to suggest Lackey was the most unpopular athlete in Boston in October 2011.

Sixteen months later and things are different. Time has healed some of the wounds, the anger directed toward Lackey has mostly been replaced by guarded optimism. If I'm listening to the radio and a caller mentions Lackey it's to proclaim he will be the surprise of the team, a sure 15-game winner. And, more often than not, the host will agree, will point to John Lackey as the player most likely to exceed expectations. Same goes for message boards and columns and preseason publications -- an amazing gift has been handed to Lackey, the opportunity for the rarest of things in Boston sports: A second act. 

And it's understandable. Let's be fair -- Lackey pitched through real pain in 2011, if he were an established, well-liked guy around here his efforts would have been saluted, not ridiculed. And he was signed to that contract with a track record of being, at the very worst, a solid major-league starting pitcher, and maybe you've noticed the Red Sox haven't exactly been stuffed with those the last couple of years. This team needs almost everything to go right just to be competitive this season, which means they need 30 starts, 200 innings and an ERA somewhere close to 4.00 from John Lackey. He has to be the pitcher he was in the second half of 2010 -- 3.97 ERA, 1.21 WHIP -- for the Red Sox to have a shot, there's no room for error in this rotation.

Many if not most folks think that's going to happen with Lackey this year, and that's not without justification. But I have my doubts. 

Let's forget the transformation in attitude for a moment and just focus on John Lackey, Pitcher. He's 34 years old, coming off of Tommy John surgery and hasn't thrown a pitch in about a year and a half. Granted, guys come back from Tommy John surgery and are often better than before, but that's not the standard, is it? Don't we all think Lackey will be better than he was in 2011? 

No, the issue is still this: Was Lackey a product of the AL West, a product of mostly avoiding the AL East for a great majority of his career? His lifetime ERA against the Red Sox is 5.25, against the Yankees is 4.68 and against the Rays is 4.09 (he is 11-4, 3.35 against the Orioles in 19 starts). His career numbers at Fenway are 20-17 with a 5.45 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 44 starts. Now, he made some of those starts with serious elbow injury, but not all of them. Other than hope, there's no real proof he's going to be what the Sox need him to be in 2013.

Also this: You can write off Lackey's 2011 to the injury, OK. But how far back do we go? His WHIP increased each year from 2008-11, as did his hits and walks allowed per nine innings and ERA. He averaged 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 2005 and that number has decreased in each season since. Was the elbow a problem in, say, 2008, or was this simply a pitcher beginning a decline? 

And it's terrific that Lackey has tried to say the right things so far this winter -- though he calling his 2010 season "decent" is a reach -- but can we all agree it's a lot easier to do that 1,482 miles away from Boston, with the media not really yet positioned to be in pounce mode? You know how it is in spring training, it's all sunshine and lollipops. Everyone is in the best shape of their career, everyone has learned their lesson.

Fair or not, what's going to happen the first time Lackey gives up eight runs in four innings at Fenway, gets booed off the mound and has to answer tough questions in front of 50 reporters dying for blood? Maybe he has gained some perspective, but I'll remain skeptical until I see it.

For now, The Redemption Tour rolls on. The new John Lackey is a welcome change, but the Red Sox desperately need the vintage Lackey to compete in 2013. And it's hard to imagine that Lackey is going to return.