Yesterday, we were treated to the news that the former Cub and current free agent starting pitcher John Lackey would reportedly not be retiring from baseball as expected. Gasp!
And given the intimate familiarity both he and the Cubs share (though it’s fair to point out that there’s a new pitching coach in town), the glaring vacancies in the rotation (in part, created by Lackey’s departure), and his expectedly reasonable cost, it’s not insane to at least examine what a 39-year-old John Lackey could offer to the 2018 Chicago Cubs.
That doesn’t mean we’ll like what we find, mind you, but it’s certainly worth considering. Brett summed it up well yesterday:
Lackey, who turned 39 last month, struggled through 2017, marking his worst season since 2011 (aka the year he pitched with a torn UCL). His 4.59 ERA was only 5% worse than league average, though, which would make him definitionally a pretty darn good fifth starter. Moreover, he posted a 3.75 ERA after the All-Star break, when he was on the disabled list with a foot issue.
[…. But l]et’s not confuse that with me saying the Cubs should aggressively pursue a reunion with Lackey to hold down a back-of-the-rotation job in 2018.
Okay, let’s ride this wave and see where it takes us.
2017 was technically Lackey’s worst season in the Majors (by fWAR) since debuting for the Angels all the way back in 1943. Further his 0.5 fWAR was not only the first time under 2.4 fWAR since 2011 (when he pitched through a torn UCL), it was also the second lowest WAR total among all qualified starting pitchers in baseball this season. Yikes.
But really, his season was split into two distinct halves.
First Half (98.2IP): 5.20 ERA, 5.67 FIP
In the first half of the season, homers were – *by far* – Lackey’s biggest problem. His 24 HRs allowed ranked second in all of baseball, while his 2.19 HR/9 ranked third. And while it may seem like his 21.2% HR/FB ratio was unfairly high and disproportionately contributed to those ugly numbers, he did allow a ton of hard contact (37.1%) and got very little soft contact (14.4%) early in the year. Sometimes HR/FB is about luck; sometimes it’s about getting hammered.
Further worsening the effects of the that ratio was his elevated 38.0% fly ball rate and a below-average 43.1% ground ball rate. Without any help in the K/BB department, where there was a further slide, it’s easy to see why he struggled.
But in the second half …
Second Half (72.0IP): 3.75 ERA, 4.78 FIP
… Lackey’s ERA dropped by nearly a run and a half (down to something much better than league average), while his FIP dropped by nearly a run, too! What were the biggest changes? Well, unfortunately, Lackey didn’t quite cut down on that fly ball rate (in fact, it worsened), but he did get a lot less hard contact (32.6%) and a lot more soft contact (18.4%), both of which are about league average.
And with improved contact management, his HR/FB ratio dipped to a more reasonable 14.1%. And from that, his ugly first-half 2.19 HR/9 (3rd worst) dropped all the way down to 1.52 HR/9 (… still 14th worst). Since he was also able to mostly maintain his K/BB numbers, the relative success was actually well-earned.
And remember, Lackey dealt with a foot issue in the first-half of the season that landed him on the DL about half-way through the year. Perhaps that was legitimately (albeit quietly) affecting his first half and the more pleasant results thereafter were directly related to its healing up? Maybe? Maybe.
I can’t say what any of this would necessarily mean for next season, especially for a pitcher of Lackey’s age, but I can say that second-half John Lackey was a perfectly fine fifth starter in Major League Baseball. Given that’s all the Cubs are looking for this year (and at an affordable price), it’s at least reasonable to continue considering him.
There is still one more very significant BUT …
After average 92.5 MPH(ish) on his fastball in his last four (post-Tommy John surgery) years, Lackey’s fastball dipped a full MPH here in 2017. And not only is that likely never coming back, it may have affected his entire game plan:
Four-Seam Fastball Usage and Value
2013: 48.9%, 0.2 PV
2014: 50.8%, -0.9 PV
2015: 46.1%, 10.5 PV
2016: 42.4%, 4.3 PV
2017: 34.4%, -3.2 PV
He may have already been trending in this direction, but his four-seam fastball usage fell off the map this past season, as did the pitch value it was earning. Betting on 39-year-old is already a risky move, but one whose fastball is heading in this direction … yikes.
But here’s the other reality: 2018 is a very weird year for the Cubs. They still figure to be quite good and feel like the NL Central favorites, but they did just lose some significant pieces and are probably bracing for regression elsewhere (Jon Lester, for example, may have started a downward trend last year). With a huge free agent class after this season, 2018 might serve as a transitional year (again: I mean that as even if the Cubs win the division).
With that in mind, could a (MUCH smaller) investment in a back-end arm like Lackey make some sense? Yeah, sure. If the Cubs aren’t finding what they like in free agency and don’t feel like parting with one of their top positional players is going to net them the right arm, they can save some powder and go hog wild next winter when the biggest free agent class in recent memory hits the market. I don’t necessarily expect them to do that, but it isn’t out of the question.
Or, alternatively, perhaps they can get Lackey to sign on without a guarantee that he’ll make the team/start for the Cubs in 2018. If he shows up to Spring Training and looks like second-half Lackey, they can keep his career going in Chicago. If not, well, there’s not a whole lot to lose. Lackey, of course, doesn’t strike me as a “I’ll hang out in the minors until you need me” type of guy, but a Minor League deal with a Major League split if he makes the team (and retires or tries somewhere else if he doesn’t) doesn’t seem too risky.
Of course, the rub there is that the “we might need you” spot is only available at the end of the offseason if the Cubs have already failed to get two other starting pitchers, as is their plan. So Lackey may very well find another opportunity before then.
We’ll see how this plays out. It’s not a storyline we expected to be tracking this year, but for all the reasons discussed above, it’s not absolutely unthinkably awful to consider that Lackey could return to the Cubs in 2018 as a 5th starter. It seems unlikely and, in a perfect world, in advisable. But it’s possible.