The reasons behind the Cubs signing of John Lackey last offseason were multi-fold.
In Lackey, the Cubs were getting an innings-eating workhorse with a postseason pedigree and a love-him-or-hate-him edge. Moreover, they got him at a price that seemed like a bargain, especially considering that his deal came right before the cost of free-agent pitching shot through the roof.
Lackey went on to pitch to a 3.41 ERA/3.72 FIP/3.73 xFIP as he logged 158.1 innings in his first 24 starts of the 2016 season, striking out 156 batters (against only 43 walks) with a 1.04 WHIP.
That’s not a bad start at all, but the second half (including the postseason) was, as we know, a bit of a different story. So let’s take a look at how the results changed later in the season, and determine what may have been the cause of the relative decline.
Pitching in the first half of his age 37 season, Lackey lived up to his reputation as a strike-thrower (66% strikes) who threw a ton of fastballs. In fact, Lackey threw 1,407 pitches that were either logged as four-seamers or sinkers in those first 24 starts. If you want to look at it on a percentage basis, 59.26 percent of the pitches thrown by Lackey were some sort of fastball, according to Brooks Baseball.
And to show that he wasn’t a one-trick pony, Lackey even added a new wrinkle with an increased strikeout rate (24.9 K%) thanks in part to a slider that produced a 22.9 percent whiff rate in those starts. Combine that all with a nifty 6.9 percent walk rate and the Cubs received exactly what they hoped for when they signed John Lackey in the offseason.
Unfortunately, Lackey hit a speed bump last summer, when he left his August 14th start against the Cardinals with a shoulder problem. For what it’s worth, he seemed unconcerned about the injury at the time and quickly returned to the mound on September 4th, but did get some extra rest mixed in, as the Cubs went with a six-man rotation down the stretch.
It’s not as if Lackey threw poorly in September, pitching to a 3.00 ERA, but the peripheral numbers (4.28 FIP, 4.16 xFIP) were a cause for concern. Opposing hitters slashed .222/.288/.370 against Lackey in those starts after holding them to a .217/.280/.363 slash in his first 24 starts of the year. Further, his strikeout rate dipped to 19.8 percent, while his walk rate crept up to 8.3 percent.
But the changes weren’t limited to just the results.
Although there were no noticeable velocity issues, there was a slight change in pitch mix, highlighted in a decrease in four-seamers (38.4% pre-injury, 31.4% post-injury), as well as an increase in cutter/sliders (from 22.2% to 28.3%) and changeups (from 4.9% to 8.0%).
And then, injury or not, Lackey found himself with a short leash in the postseason, where he did not complete six innings and made it through five innings only once in three starts. Obviously some of that is tied to how the bullpen is managed in the postseason, but it’s still quite a contrast from a pitcher whose 20 quality starts were tied with Kyle Hendricks for second on the staff behind Jon Lester’s 26.
Here is how each of Lackey’s postseason starts played out:
- NLDS Game 4 at Giants: 4 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 4 K
- NLCS Game 4 at Dodgers: 4 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, HBP
- World Series Game 4 vs. Indians: 5 IP, 4 H, 3 R (2 ER), 1 BB, 5 K, HR
Lackey threw 230 pitches in the postseason and only 58.6 percent were strikes, which represents a drop off of eight percentage points from his regular season strike percentage. He also owned a 20.6 K% and 10.3 BB% in the playoffs, which were a step back from what his productive regular season.
So what was the problem?
Maybe the bar was set too high, with his strong start fueled by one of the best pitches in baseball at his disposal early in the season. Or maybe he just wore down at the end of the season as many pitchers (especially ones approaching 40) do. All things considered, the Cubs got their money’s worth in Lackey’s first year with the team, but there is still another very important year ahead of them (and him) in 2017.
Extracting value is no longer the consideration; now the Cubs simply need Lackey to perform. Hopefully, after an offseason of rest and recovery, we’ll quickly be able to see some progress in the Spring.