Sometimes, it takes a deep dive into the stats to truly understand what’s going on with a player.
Why are the results not there? Where are the particular struggles? Are these things that naturally correct, or will require active changes? What do the numbers tell us that we can’t see with our eyes?
Sometimes, though, you don’t really need the numbers to do much more than reinforce what you already know to be true.
So it is with Cubs starter John Lackey, whose 2017 season has been a relative disaster thanks to good old fashioned “getting hit too hard.”
Last night’s outing, in which Lackey gave up another three home runs, was a good example: on fastballs of 88, 90, and 92 mph near the center of the zone, Lackey gave up homers that were hit at 99, 101, and 109 mph. Not every bad pitch is going to get hammered, but those three bad pitches certainly were. Lackey also gave up two deep fly balls to the warning track in the first inning.
Consider that Lackey’s walk rate and strikeout rate are more or less the same as his successful 2017 season. So why is his ERA nearly two runs higher? Again, you already know: he’s getting hit too hard.
At 38.3%, Lackey is giving up the most hard contact he ever has in his career. And at 39.0%, he’s also giving up the highest fly ball rate of his career. That is a horrible combination, yielding a mind-bogglingly high 2.27 HR/9, nearly DOUBLE the highest previous rate in his career. It’s the fourth highest rate in baseball this year, and his 21.8% HR/FB ratio is also the fourth highest.
But why is the hard, fly ball contact increasing?
Once again, it doesn’t seem to be complicated. Lackey, age 38, is dealing with things that all pitchers do as they get older (he just held out for much longer than most): his velocity continues to tick down, and the movement on his pitches has ticked down as well.
When you are progressively throwing not quite as hard, and your pitches are getting progressively less movement, it becomes easier for hitters to do the thing they’re up to there to do.
Like I keep saying: in this instance, it’s not all that complicated.
What’s far more complicated is where the Cubs and Lackey go from here. He’s a veteran and a professional, so I’m sure that none of these issues are revelatory to him. He’ll keep working to adjust and make the best of what he’s got left in the tank. The Cubs will continue to consider their rotation options as the trade deadline approaches, but, internally, they may be required to continue leaning on Lackey (especially considering injury-ish issues for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, and injuries to depth arms at Iowa). Even after acquiring a pitcher – if the Cubs are able to do so in July – they may very well still need Lackey in the rotation.
Hopefully there’s some kind of adjustment Lackey and the Cubs can make to reduce at least some of the hard, fly ball contact. Father Time is undefeated in the end, but maybe he can be staved off for just a little while longer.