It’s fair to say that John Lackey’s first playoff start with the Cubs was a dud.
He allowed three runs on seven hits in four innings, walking two and striking out four as the Giants jumped out to an early lead in NLDS Game Four. The Cubs came from behind to win the game, but Lackey’s performance shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle because of it.
To be sure, Lackey had a great first year with the Cubs, but it wasn’t without ups and downs.
When Lackey struggles, you often find it is because he is not living well in the strike zone. For example, he threw strikes on 57 percent of his offerings against San Francisco, down significantly from his season average of 66 percent. Lackey works fearlessly and aggressively in the zone, throwing 68.1 percent of his first offerings for strikes. That represents the third highest percentage in baseball.
If Lackey can work efficiently in the strike zone, it sets up his slider as a swing-and-miss pitch. Whiffs would be a welcome addition after getting as many swings-and-misses with the slider (4) as he did with his other four-seamer, sinker, curve and changeup combined in his NLDS start.
Because of the way he attacks hitters, Lackey has bounce-back potential as he approaches his NLCS Game Four start. He fired nine starts this year that did not qualify for quality start status. Here is how he performed after each of them.
- 4/13 vs. CIN: 6.2, 6 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K
- 5/1 vs. ATL: 8 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
- 6/30 @ NYM: 6.1, 5 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
- 7/10 @ PIT: 6 IP, 7 H 5 ER, 2 BB, 9 K
- 7/17 vs. TEX: 8 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 8 K
- 7/23 @ MIL: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
- 9/10 @ HOU: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
- 9/21 vs. CIN: 7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Recent history suggests Lackey is a candidate to make a bounce back start, even if only three of those eight came against teams with winning records. In any case, back-to-back non-quality starts for Lackey were rare. He threw back-to-back non-quality starts on July 10 (against the Pirates) and July 17 (against the Rangers) in what was his last start before and first start after the All-Star Break. Outside of that occurrence, Lackey followed non-quality starts with quality starts six times.
So, how does he bounce back effectively in Game Four of the NLCS tonight?
Limiting sinker usage with Gold Glove worthy infielders behind you seems counter productive, but opponents are hitting .301 with a .556 slugging percentage against that pitch. Compare that to Lackey’s four-seamer, which he throws the most often (1,197 times, per BrooksBaseball.net) and hitters have hit only .234 with a .390 slugging percentage.
Getting into two-strike counts (and finishing off batters) is of the utmost importance against the Dodgers. Lackey’s ability (or inability) to put hitters away in two-strike counts looms large.
Lackey’s slider generates a 22.41% whiff rate, according to BrooksBaseball.net. It is also the pitch he throws that receives the highest percentage of whiffs. He will likely need every one of those against a lefty heavy Dodgers lineup. And if he has it, note that it induced a 21.78 percent whiff rate against lefties in two-strike counts.