2010 Red Sox Preview: Which John Lackey Will the Red Sox Be Getting?

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2010 Red Sox Preview: Which John Lackey Will the Red Sox Be Getting?
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The Red Sox front office decided not to give free agent LF Jason Bay a four-year contract due to a suspicion that he might experience a knee or shoulder injury during the life of the contract; yet, in the next breath, the Sox gave RHP John Lackey, who HAS suffered injuries during each of the last two seasons, a five-year deal worth $85 million.

The organization made it very clear that it preferred to build the team around pitching and defense for 2010 and beyond. Since Lackey was clearly the best pitcher in this winter’s free agent class, it is not surprising the ballclub paid him what was required to get his John Hancock on the dotted line.

The truth of the matter is that there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the club’s decision… but there are also several reasons to be hopeful. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein had never before signed a free agent pitcher to a five-year deal, so he obviously placed more emphasis on the positives.

So now the question must be asked: which John Lackey will they be getting?

He had the best year of his career in ‘07, going 19-9, with a 3.01 ERA; but, just when things seemed to be looking up, the injury bug reared its ugly head. He suffered injuries during each of the last two spring trainings: biceps tendinitis in 2008 and elbow problems last year. He is on a three-year slide in almost every major pitching statistic:

Wins: from 19 to 12 to 11 last season
ERA: from 3.01 to 3.75 to 3.83 last season
WHIP: from 1.210 to 1.231 to 1.270 last season
Batting: from .254 to .260 to .263 last season
K/BB Ratio: from 3.44 to 3.25 to 2.96 last season

These are the numbers many pundits pointed to in declaring the Red Sox had made a mistake in signing Lackey to a five-year deal, and it may turn out the critics are right. But if you compare these stats to the league averages, in spite of the negative trend, they are all better than the majority of AL pitchers.

And there are other numbers that suggest the Red Sox decision may work out just fine—at least in the short run.

His metrics over the last couple of years show some outliers that can help to explain why his recent performance has suffered. Whether or not the injuries had anything to do with the outliers, it should be expected that he'll to trend back towards the norm as he gets healthier and stronger.

In the wake of the tendinitis he suffered from in 2008, his splits in terms of ground balls, line drives, and fly balls remained almost identical to his outstanding 2007 campaign; however, the ratio of fly balls that became home runs more than doubled from 2007 (increasing from seven percent to 15 percent, well above the major league average). Otherwise, many of the metrics remained consistent (ie, contact rate, percentage of balls put in play, percentage of pitches thrown for strikes, strand rate, etc). In fact, his xERA actually decreased from 3.68 (2007) to 3.62 (2008).

Then last spring Lackey suffered an elbow injury and missed the first two months of the season… he made only five starts in the first half of the season. Again, many of his metrics remained consistently good, including a nearly-normal HR/FB ratio (which was back down to nine percent). But he walked a lot more batters (thus, the increase in WHIP) and saw his strand rate drop five points from his 2007 level (to 72 percent). His xERA rose only slightly to 3.79.

And then there is his first-half / second-half split from last year. If you are among those who believe the second half of one season is a good predictor of performance in the following year, Lackey could be in for a heckuva season. In the second half of 2009, he posted a 9-5 record, with a 3.29 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP (his xERA was 3.72).

Lastly, the question has been raised as to how he’ll perform while pitching half his games at Fenway Park, which is a much better hitters park than Angels Stadium.

Well, his career record in Los Angeles is 49-32, with a 3.72 ERA (the same as his xERA in the second half of last year).

Over the last five years, analysis indicates Angels Stadium was a pitcher’s park by a slight margin (the ballpark effect was 0.989), while Fenway Park has been a hitter’s park (1.077). A simultaneous examination of the Sox offense (in terms of runs scored) as compared to the rest of the league over the same period indicates that their offense has been 9.9 percent more prolific than the league average, suggesting that other offenses score somewhere in the vicinity of 5.5 percent more runs at Fenway Park than in the average ballpark (1.099-1.077=.022; 1.077-.022=1.055).

Here is a simplistic methodology for trying to equalize what we might expect of Lackey in Boston vs Los Angeles: if we start with the 1.1 percent positive ballpark effect Lackey enjoyed in Los Angeles, I will adjust his ERA from 3.72 to 3.76. Then, taking that "normalized" ERA and converting it to what could be expected at Fenway Park, we increase the number by 5.5 percent (the non-Sox offensive increment at Fenway Park over the last five years), and we establish a projected Fenway ERA of 3.97.

I’m not a sabermetrician. I suppose that the statisticians out there who have sophisticated means for making such conversions will point out the folly of my approach. That’s all right. All I’m trying to do is make a rough estimate of what we might expect from Lackey in the next 10 months.

As far as his projected win-loss record, let’s take a look at the performance of the starting pitcher judged to most-closely compare with Lackey—Josh Beckett (see baseball-reference.com ). The Red Sox rightly went 17-6, 3.86, in 2009.

So, what kind of numbers will he put up in 2010? As I’ve mentioned previously in this series, I am not a devotee of the most widely-used projection systems: CHONE, Bill James, and PECOTA. They all have problems. CHONE projections tend to be strong for hitters but weak for pitchers. The PECOTA system has the opposite problem—it is strong for pitchers but weak for hitters. And while Bill James is well-known and an employee of the Red Sox, his annual projections are consistently overly-optimistic.

I prefer the work done by Ron Shandler (who is the godfather of "fanalytics") and Mike Podhorzer (the new kid on the block).

Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster is must-reading for any baseball fan, especially if he/she is a fantasy baseball aficionado. Shandler and his minions do great work. They can be found at BaseballHeadquarters.com .

Podhorzer’s predictions at fantasypros911.com went 42-0 when compared head-to-head with other projection systems last year. Seriously, folks, if you don’t know about fantasypros911.com , it’s time that you take a look. Great stuff!

So what do these two systems project for Lackey for the upcoming season?

Shandler: 13-8, 3.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP… 189 IP, 148 K
Podhorzer: 15 wins, 3.77 ERA, 1.24 WHIP… 200 IP, 160 K

As for me, I’m inclined to agree with Theo. I think Lackey will be rejuvenated by coming to Boston and that 2010-11 will be much better than 2008-09.

I think Beckett’s performance from last year is a good benchmark to use for Lackey. I think the ERA projections of Shandler and Podhorzer are a bit low, but I don’t expect his ERA will increase to the projection I provided herein—I say that in consideration the beneficial effect of Beltre / Cameron / Ellsbury as compared to Lowell / Ellsbury / Bay.

So I’ll project a record of 17-10, with a 3.86 ERA and 1.25 WHIP for Lackey in 2010.

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