Why a change in John Lackey's repertoire could mean a big season

No player on the Red Sox has had as tumultuous a time with the team than John Lackey. He posted a 14-11 record in his first year in Boston in 2010, with a 4.40 ERA -- although his 3.85 FIP suggests he was the victim of bad luck. That bad luck was no excuse for his terrible 2011; his 6.41 ERA was by far the worst for a Red Sox starter with at least 150 innings. It now appears that his poor 2010 and 2011 were the result of pain in his pitching elbow, which eventually led to Lackey missing all of 2012 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Lackey is signed through 2014, but the Sox have a $500,000 vesting option for 2015 because of the time Lackey missed last season. The question now is whether Boston can retain some value from Lack in these last two or three seasons, or whether this $82.5 million dollar contract will go down as one of the worst in Boston history. So far, Lackey has brought value to the Sox this season, albeit in the smallest of sample sizes.

In his first start in eighteen months April 6, Lackey was dealing against the Blue Jays before leaving with a bicep strain. He went on the DL, but made his triumphant return on Sunday to defeat the Astros for his first win since 2011. He only needed 81 pitches to get through 6 innings, striking out 4 and walking 2. Again, it's difficult to cultivate much from only two starts, but so far Lackey is exhibiting some positive changes in his pitches that could mean for an Angels-era John Lackey season.

Since 2006, a pitch tracking system called PITCHf/x has been implemented in all 30 stadiums. PITCHf/x tracks the speed and trajectories of pitches, and spits out tons of data on velocity, movement of pitches, the arm angle of the pitcher, and the type of pitches thrown. Besides the Amica Pitch Zone (or Amicer Pitch Zone as Remy would say), PITCHf/x technology is very useful in determining if a pitcher's repertoire is changing, or whether his pitches have more movement. For Lackey, both are the case.

In 2007, the first year that PITCHf/x data is available on www.brooksbaseball.net, Lackey threw a fourseam fastball (41% of the time), a curveball (27%), a sinker (20%), a slider (8%), and a changeup (4%); He had a 3.01 ERA that year, the lowest of his career. In 2008 and 2009 he threw his sinker more (25%) and his fastball less (35%). Then Lackey came to the Sox in 2010, and curiously threw his sinker a lot less (13% of the time), and his slider a lot more (18%). Perhaps this increase in sliders is what led to his elbow issue, although according to Lackey he was pitching with pain his whole time with Boston.

After seeing limited success with his changed repertoire in 2010, what did Lackey do in 2011? He actually threw more sliders (25%) and virtually no sinkers (4%). Essentially becoming a three pitch pitcher (fourseam, slider, curveball) is not going to work when your fastball sits at 92 MPH, and you can't throw your slider with consistency. Throwing a slider 25% of the time not only ruined Lackey's 2011 season, it most likely ruined his elbow.

However, like many older pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery, Lackey has the chance to rise out of the ashes with his new pitch selection. It is only two starts and it remains to be seen whether this holds up all season, but Lackey has reintroduced his sinker this season (16%), while still throwing a lot of sliders (28%) and cutting back on his curveball. The quantity of sinkers Lackey is throwing is good, but the quality is even better. The vertical movement he has on his sinker, 5.75 inches, is almost an inch better than his 2011 sinker. Lackey induced groundballs on 62.5% of his sinkers in 2011; that number has jumped up to 80% this season. His slider is also biting its sharpest since 2009 at 2.97 horizontal inches, and also inducing a lot of groundballs.

Lackey could very well be the sub-par pitcher this season that he has been in the past in Boston, but so far he is showing signs of change and that change is translating into results on the field. Our 4/5th starter certainly won't have a 2.61 ERA this season, but even if it hovers around 4.00 it will be a huge improvement over years past, and could be a significant key in making the playoffs.

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