John Lackey Proving Offseason Doubt Wrong

This past December, when word officially broke that the Chicago Cubs would be signing former St. Louis Cardinals starter John Lackey to a 2-year deal, the Cubs corner of the baseball world was met with a mixture of intense emotions. Some folks simply weren’t fond of Lackey, be it on the field or off the field. But over halfway through the season, it’s hard to deny that Lackey has done anything but help bridge the gap that once was so weak in the middle of the Cubs rotation, and he’s done so with his own personal flair.

For a second, let’s talk about the folks who were more concerned with Lackey’s ability to pitch a strong follow-up to his wildly successful 2015 season in St. Louis. I had my doubts, for his success in 2015 seemed like more of an outlier than anything. For a 14-year veteran of the game to suddenly post some of his career best numbers in his age 37 season would make anyone wonder about the secret formula. But post a few career-best numbers is exactly what Lackey did in St. Louis, and that was the root of my concern. What if he simply turned into a washed up 37-year old middle of the rotations starter in 2015? One that the Cubs just signed for two full seasons? The feeling of doubt lingered for me.

But with baseball season in full bloom and research no longer needing the addendum “Small sample caveats apply!”, it’s time to assess just how good Lackey turned out to be.

Back in December, I had three major questions concerning Lackey’s 2016, the type of questions that can only be answered with sufficient passage of time and patience. Let’s see how those concerned turned out.

What if Lackey can’t sustain his 2015 numbers, or something comparable to them?

Lackey had an very successful 2015, that’s a fact. In most cases, you wouldn’t expect a pitcher on his 13th season in baseball to post his career best ERA that season, one that was good for top ten in baseball at 2.77, would you? That’s exactly what Lackey did. But the funny thing about ERA is that it can be misleading. Lackey was very good in 2015, but he wasn’t so good that baseball folks needed to worry about his ability to replicate such a stellar season. Here’s why.

Context statistics. In 2015, FIP liked Lackey a bit better than DRA, as Lackey’s FIP last season was 4th-best of his career at 3.57, while his DRA was 11th best of his career at 4.45, suggesting that while neither were poor numbers, the drastically low ERA we saw from Lackey was lacking a bit of context (no pun intended).

With that being said, it’s not as if Lackey had a huge mountain to climb to be successful and dominant in 2016. Lackey was very good, but ERA painted a little bit of a misleading picture, meaning that the idea of him repeating the success seen in St. Louis last season was an attainable goal. Phew! Thank goodness.

And Lackey has done just that, only without the distorting lense of a gleaming and somewhat misleading ERA. Lackey is posting a 3.56 ERA this season, and his FIP is not far behind at 3.75. The best part is, Lackey’s DRA, a statistic for pitchers that is about as accurate as you can get (for now) when it comes to evaluating a pitcher’s isolated true talent, likes him better than his ERA this season — Lackey’s DRA is currently 3.45. Impressive.

Now, moving on to another area of strong concern…

What about Lackey’s home run tendencies? He’s moving to a hitters park in the Windy City!

Home runs became an issue for Lackey, mostly after his return from Tommy John surgery. Save for last season, when his HR/FB rate came in at 9.8 percent, Lackey saw his HR/FB permanently rise to double digit numbers after the surgery. Well, 2015 is no different, Lackey is currently prone to giving up long balls here and there, and is posting a HR/FB rate of 13 percent. But, this was to be expected with the move to Wrigley Field, and in all honesty, I personally expected it to be a lot worse.

Lackey is currently posting a HR/9 of 1.13, which is tied for third worst of his career. The thing about that is, it’s not truly affecting his performance to the point of it being an issue, because when he’s not allowing balls into the bleachers, Lackey is striking out just a touch over 25 percent of the batters he faces — a career high. So sure, let up a long ball here and there, but lately, that’s probably the most interesting thing you’ll be sneaking out of Lackey in 2016.

A side note: As far as allowing runs to score is concerned, Lackey’s 82.6 percent strand rate in 2015 was simply an outlier, no argument there. As fantastic as it sounds, that number was simply not sustainable. Currently posting a 75 percent mark, Lackey is successfully putting away quite a few of the runners he leaves on base this season.

Lackey has a very… strong personality. How is that going to work with the ebb and flow of a Joe Maddon run clubhouse?

Back in June, that last time I wrote on John Lackey, I had this to say regarding his personality:

“Lackey may not have the polished and shining baseball reputation that Ben Zobrist brings to the Cubs, but the reality of life is that not everything is sunshine and lollipops, and Joe Maddon would be the last person to try and shelter this group of young minds from the fact that baseball life is as much about the fanfare, success, and celebrity these players are experiencing right now as it is about being yourself, grinding out, and sometimes suffering a few scars (literally) along the way—the type of experience and persona that Lackey is well equipped to contrast this clubhouse with.”

I stand by this statement as much as I did back then, and believe that though Lackey may be a bit more vocal in his responses to sensitive topics such as saying that a lot of things bother him in the game of baseball today, the most important thing that Lackey brings to the table is the ability to show this club and the baseball world that he’s not afraid to be himself. He won’t be moulded into the baseball player on the Wheaties box that society may think he “should be”. He positively reinforces when he believes what he’s saying to be true (such as complimenting rookie catcher Willson Contreras on his fine work behind the plate as of late) and won’t hold back when he isn’t quite keen on something ( like thinking that the game has become too soft.)

So look at that, all the things that Cubs fans and baseball people alike were fretting about over the winter when it came to Lackey, turned out to be much ado about nothing. Lackey is dominating hitters, and has even found new ways to improve his repertoire as of late, and he’s adding something to Cubs culture that was much needed — a strong dose of truth and matched with a delicate balance of grit. All is well, Cubs fans. All is well.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports.

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