Position: Starting Pitcher
2016 Stats: 188 IP, 24.1 K%, 7.1 BB%, 3.35 ERA, 3.99 DRA, 3.0 WARP
Year in Review: One year ago this upcoming weekend, in a shocking move before a pitching heavy market took its annual roadshow to Nashville for the Winter Meetings, Epstein and Co. silenced the whispers about one of the biggest questions heading into that upcoming week: What were the Cubs going to do about that vacant rotation spot? What they did was sign a 37-year-old veteran from the other half of the National League’s number one rivalry to a 2-year, $32 million deal on a Saturday night right out of the blue. Hey Epstein, don’t you know that even baseball people have plans on a Saturday night besides sitting on Twitter mulling over what a deal for a starting pitcher of Lackey’s caliber signifies?
Mull is what I did. Worry is what I did. I rifled through data and numbers until I was late to my friend’s place. Because deciding if this move was going to end up becoming a death-defying one six months from that moment or if it could potentially be one of the smartest signings that the Cubs had made in years (remember, this was before the melee that was Winter Meetings 2016 had even started) couldn’t wait. After all, I had just written a Lackey profile the day prior that showcased all my skepticisms about the Cubs potentially signing the aging righty! It never got published before the deal broke, so Epstein and Hoyer couldn’t heed my warning.
In hindsight, that’s a good thing. Let me be clear, my skepticisms were not that Lackey is bad, or that he wasn’t capable of filling the role that the Cubs needed to bridge the gap between aces and back end starters — a crucial spot that can be seen through many different lenses by different teams — it was logical and rational skepticism.
Lackey was aging. He was just a few years removed from Tommy John surgery that had made his home run rates soar to new and nerve-racking levels. But at the time, he was coming off of a career best year after 13 years in the majors. That sounds a bit flukey to me. But Lackey’s whole 2015 was not completely a fluke; he is a proven talent that could easily allow for a season of that caliber of success, but it can’t be ignored that Lackey certainly did stumble onto some good luck in 2015. That was my hesitance. What if age and regression reared their ugly heads at the same time? Could have been bad news for the Cubs.
But the thing about a flukey good season when you’re already a great pitcher is that even if your numbers fall back down to earth, you’re still an above league average pitcher. Let’s say regression and age didn’t make the ultimate two headed monster that would stall Lackey’s success in 2016 (and spoiler alert: they didn’t). He would still be a very good pitcher who wasn’t being asked to be the head of a rotation, he was simply being asked to be a third starter, and as I said before, a portion of many rotations where the level of success or failure is open to interpretation.
As expected, Lackey did regress. Take a look at the difference in his stats from 2015, his career best year, to 2016, when he joined the Cubs:
Lackey fell victim to a strained shoulder in August that damped his innings total, though Lackey was at one point determined to do the impossible and make it to 200 innings, that never happened. So, the difference between innings was from a mild blemish on Lackey’s season, not from a sudden fall off in which he was being taken out of his starts after four or five innings. In fact in only four of Lackey’s 29 starts this season did he leave the game before completing six innings. That’s quite the impressive feat for a pitcher who has already logged nearly 2,700 innings in his career.
But back to the stats, you’ll notice that while Lackey’s numbers are not comparable to his stellar 2015 campaign in terms of nearly everything but strikeouts, taking those 2016 numbers in isolation gives you what is still a very solid pitcher. It’s also worth noting that Lackey actually posted his career best strikeout rate in 2016, punching out nearly a quarter of batters he faced. His walk rate went up a bit as Lackey struggled with command at times, but it wasn’t alarming enough of an increase, and there were no indicators of mechanical issues to make it a legitimate concern moving forward. Lackey’s home run rate returned to his normal post-Tommy John surgery rate, but on the other hand, in the Friendly Confines one can’t exactly punish Lackey for giving up a few extra dingers.
Lackey added not just dominance to a rotation that was already one of the strongest in baseball, but he added a strong and consistent bridge to smooth out the Cubs’ rotation into an extremely solid five headed monster. Lackey added flair and personality to the Cubs, veteran leadership to the clubhouse culture, a wealth of postseason experience, and a camaraderie with manager Joe Maddon in addition to his contributions on the field. So if you ask me, not only did Lackey meet expectations in 2016 on the North Side, he certainly exceeded them in my book. Lackey also came here for jewelry and not a haircut, which he got, so if you ask me, everyone wins.
Looking Ahead: Lackey has one season left on his contract, and unless his production levels fall off a cliff, there isn’t much indication in his last two seasons or even in his career that would lead us to believe that a poor final season with the Cubs is imminent. Assume that home runs will always be a bit of a concern for Lackey, especially when he leaves pitches down the middle, as he is prone to do with his fastball, and was the source of his home run spike in 2016. I would anticipate that Lackey’s career high strikeout rate in 2016 is likely not to be replicated consistently going forward and was somewhat of an outlier; instead, the 19.4 percent he posted in 2015 with the Cardinals was much more in line with his career average of 21.8 percent.
Lackey will be entering his age 38 season next year, and other than a brush with Tommy John surgery which he is now four years removed from, he’s been relatively healthy, and there is no reason to expect that to change. His mechanics are sharp, his velocity is steady, and he still induces a ton of ground balls should his whiff rate decrease. Lackey has just one year left on the North Side, but it looks like his career is far from over yet if he keeps it up.
Lead photo courtesy of Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports