On September 28th, 2007, John Lackey took the hill in Oakland. It would be his final start in a stellar 2007 campaign, which saw him finish 3rd in the Cy Young race. He was 28 years old, entering his prime and the ace of an outstanding Los Angeles Angels team that won 94 games on their way to reclaiming the A.L. West throne after yielding to Oakland in 2006. He won 19 games, lead the American League in ERA and Shutouts. And it wasn’t smoke and mirrors, as he ranked third in pitcher’s WAR (6.3 bWAR), and 1st in ERA+ (150).
Everything was right and well and good. The Angels were damn good (they won 100 games in 2008) and Lackey was smack in the middle of his prime, assuming the mantle as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Then it all evaporated. It would be his last, and only, great season.
Baseball’s got a funny way of turning on you. We’ve all witnessed, time and again, a player usher in what seems to be superstardom, only to collapse into infamy. Take, for instance, 2009 N.L. Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, who stormed onto the scene posting a .321/.390/.460 triple slash with an OPS+ at 122. At 24 years old, the Marlins seemed to believe they had a young star on their hands. Coghlan is now 28, has yet to post an OPS+ over even 91 again, and is resigned to a bench role in Miami.
Lackey’s ascent and subsequent decline wasn’t nearly as precipitous. Taken in the 2nd round, 68th overall, by the Angels, Lackey quickly rose through the minor-league ranks, becoming the Angels Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2000. By 2002 he earned a spot in the Big Show, despite struggling in Triple A. He pieced together a handful of starts that were good enough to earn him a postseason roster spot. at just 23 years old. Lackey earned a reputation for being a relentless, if not obnoxious, competitor. The Big Texan often wore his emotions on his sleeves, never resisting the opportunity to express his anger.
He pitched well in that 2002 postseason, yielding just six runs in 19.1 IP, including returning on three day’s rest to pitch to pitch five innings of one run baseball in the 2002 Game 7 World Series win. From all indications, Lackey’s career looked to be on the upswing. He entered 2003 as the Angels number two starter, primed to build on the early successes of 2002. But he struggled in his sophomore campaign, posting a sub-league average ERA+ of 95. He proved durable, throwing over 200 innings, and while the numbers weren’t dreadful, they were hardly what’s expected from one of the team’s top two pitchers. Again in 2004, Lackey posted a 95 ERA+. Though still young, Lackey didn’t seem to be growing into one of the team’s top pitchers.
In 2005 however, the light went on. Again he pitched over 200 innings, this time putting together a 199-strikeout season that yielded an ERA+ of 123. Though his walk numbers crept up (3.06 BB/9 in 2005 compared to 2.72 BB/9 in 2004), his strikeouts improved dramatically (8.57 K/9 in 2005 compared to 6.53 K/9 in 2004). Lackey dialed down on the number of fastballs (from 73.2% as a rookie to just 60.0% in 2005), but threw them more effectively. His fastball ranked at 7.8 runs above average, good for 25th best in all of baseball. In 2006, opportunity struck and Lackey capitalized. The Angels top pitcher, and eventual Cy Young winner, Bartolo Colon, hit the Disabled List and manager Mike Scioscia slotted Lackey as the Angels’ number one starter. Lackey showed steady improvement, despite striking out fewer batters, posting an ERA+ of 127. Yet again he threw over 200 innings, the third time in four complete seasons.* He managed a streak of 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and became American League Pitcher of the Month for July. As he entered 2007, Lackey stood alongside Vladimir Guerrero and Francisco Rodriguez as the faces of the franchise. Scioscia admired his gritty, bulldog mentality on the mound and fiery personality in the clubhouse. Above all, he was durable and dependable, something the Angels lacked from their starters through the early 2000′s.
*He only missed hitting 200 innings in 2004 by 1.2 innings.
Lackey proved stellar in 2007. He became the first player in baseball to win 10 games. He was elected to the All-Star team for the first time in his career. And the Angels were excellent. Though they were swept from the Postseason by the powerhouse Red Sox, the future looked bright in a hapless A.L. West. The Angels weren’t young, but they were talented enough to win now. Lackey entered his 7th season with sky-high expectations. His numbers regressed, though not horribly. He still managed an ERA+ of 119, but failed to even approach 200 innings for the first time in his career. He battled injuries in 2008 and once again in 2009, beginning the season on D.L. The once unbreakable Angels’ ace became fragile and beatable, regressing yet again. By season’s end, the Angels decided to move on from Lackey and the big dollars the now 31-year-old would command.
Despite the recent occurrence of injuries, the Boston Red Sox were not dissuaded. Media and analysts widely considered Lackey the best starting pitcher on the market that season, though the competition was less than stiff (Randy Wolf’s 3 year, $29.7 proved to be the second largest given to any starter). At 31, Lackey could hardly be considered old, even if he was likely entering years of coming decline. The Red Sox rewarded him handsomely with a $82.5 million dollar contract, spread over five seasons. The Red Sox were seeking a fourth starter to team with ace Josh Beckett and youngsters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. The move figured to solidify an already strong rotation to pair with their dominant offense (third in MLB in runs scored in 2009).
The warning signs seemed to be there. Not only were Lackey’s numbers declining (both surface and peripherally), the transition from one of baseball’s most pitcher friendly parks in Anahiem to a offensive fortress in Boston seemed daunting. But the analytically inclined Sox were given the benefit of the doubt by most. The assumption is that Lackey could push the Sox over the top. After all, while he may not be his 2007 ace form, he was still worth 3.5 runs in 2009. Lackey’s first season in Boston proved tumultuous. While he did top 200 innings once again, his 99 ERA+ proved to be his worst since 2004. The numbers weren’t galling, but not what you’d expect from an 82-million-dollar man. The Red Sox missed the postseason and the moved looked to be a bust.
At the end of 2010, the move looked, at worst, to be a miscalculation by a front office that could afford to expend a few unnecessary dollars. Sure, Lackey may not have been good, but he was durable and not wholly ineffective. He was still a 3.9 win pitcher. Yet, by the end of the 2011 season, it looked like an abject disaster. In just 160 innings in 2011, Lackey lead the A.L. in ER and HBP. His season started poorly, which landed him a trip to d.l., presumably to work out his issues, though the reason given was an elbow strain. Once he returned, the results were no better. His 6.41 ERA wound up being the highest single season amount in Red Sox history for a pitcher who tossed over 150 innings. To make matters worst, the Red Sox concluded the season with an historic collapse, which lead to Terry Francona’s head rolling and some not so favorable media coverage regarding fried chicken and beer.
For a span, you could say Lackey was likely the most hated man in Boston. It’s often the case when high dollars and high expectations meet failure. But to couple his failure with deep-fried, alcohol-dipped apathy, would earn even the bluest of blue collar Bostonians’ spite. When Lackey underwent off-season Tommy John surgery that would sideline him for all of 2012, few tears were shed. Later, Lackey was spotted swilling beer in the clubhouse during his rehabilitation. Levels of Lackey disdain reached an all-time high. To top it all off, the 2012 Red Sox came up a bust, winning only 69 games, finishing last in the A.L. East. Without even pitching an inning, Lackey became a frequent source of blame.
Entering 2013, after another off season full of highly priced acquisitions, it’d be fair to say expectations for Lackey were non-existent. If he were able to even cobble together 150 league-average innings, the bulk of Boston would have considered it victory. The season began with a rocky start. Taking the mound for the first time since September 2011, Lackey pitched just 4.1 innings before being pulled due to injury. The injury, a biceps strain, sidelined him for much of April. He returned on April 28th, notching 6 strong innings to earn his first victory since August 23rd, 2011. What happened thereafter surprised everyone.
Not only did Lackey remain healthy, he returned to the form which earned him an $82.5 million contract. Pitching 189.1 innings, he struck out 161 batters, good for an ERA+ of 116. He became a 3-win pitcher again, driving his walks down and strikeouts up. Much like 2005 when Lackey found success dialing back his fastball, but this time became more reliant upon his slider while focusing on pitching hitters low and away.
Today, John Lackey will take the mound in Game 3 of the ALCS in Detroit against one of the league’s best pitchers, Justin Verlander. At 34 years old, he’s experienced both the highs of dominance and the lows of complete ineffectiveness. The road to today, the one replete with detours, wrong turns, failures and fried chicken; the one that Lackey navigated to earn this opportunity, well that road is certainly less traveled.