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September 17, 2007

Player Profile

John Lackey

by Marc Normandin

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For the last four seasons, John Lackey has been one of the better pitchers in the American League. Nevertheless, you rarely hear his name from the mainstream media, and that's while teammates like Bartolo Colon undeservedly collect some of the praise Lackey's due. However, despite Lackey's consistent success--as measured by both traditional and more advanced pitching statistics--he does have his problems.

John Derran Lackey was drafted in the second round of the 1999 amateur draft by the Anaheim Angels, and signed soon after. The 6'6" Texan would make his professional debut at Low-A Boise in the Northwest League, and then make a three-stop sophomore campaign:


Year Team                IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
1999 Boise(A-)          81.1   8.5   5.5    1.5    0.8    9.0   6.55
2000 Cedar Rapids(A)    30.1   6.2   1.5    4.2    0.3    6.0   2.08
2000 Lake Elsinore(A+) 100.2   6.6   3.8    1.8    0.8    8.4   5.03
2000 Erie(AA)           57.1   6.8   1.4    4.8    0.9    9.1   3.63

Lackey's debut was unimpressive, with high walk rates and a Run Average in the mid sixes. The strikeouts were there though, but given the way his walks and strikeouts dropped the next year, you'd have to think the Halos' minor league coaches tweaked Lackey a bit to make him more effective in and around the strike zone. The results of the changes delivered great results during his short Cedar Rapids stint, with an impressive 30 innings of work. His stop at Lake Elsinore didn't go as well, thanks to 18 unearned runs that drove his RA up considerably from his 3.40 ERA.

Nevertheless, the Angels moved their second-round pick up further by pushing him up to Double-A Erie for the rest of the year, and Lackey responded well by posting his best strikeout numbers of the year, lowering his walk rate once again, and keeping baserunners from scoring. As an aside, I'm not much for rushing prospects until they've mastered a level somewhat, but I do like throwing non-first rounders against the wall to see if they're going to stick. Given the low overall numbers of high draft picks that make the major leagues as worthwhile contributors, seeing what you have with a second- or third-rounder makes a lot of sense. The Angels did this with Lackey, moving him across four levels in two seasons while allowing him to pitch 188 1/3 innings in his first full year.

Lackey's success earned hims the rank as the organization's fourth-best prospect in the Angels' rankings by Baseball America:

The Angels forfeited their 1999 first-round pick to sign Mo Vaughn, so Lackey was their top pick. He began his college career at Texas-Arlington, then transferred to Grayson County Community College, where he batted .440 with 16 homers as a two-way player in 1999. Though he had more success as a hitter as an amateur, he reached Double-A and pitched well there in his first full season. Lackey has a big, strong body that gives him good leverage and allows him to pitch on a downward plane. Both his low-to-mid 90s fastball and his curveball are plus pitches, and his changeup should be at least average. Lackey's control left a lot to be desired after he signed, but he threw a lot more strikes last season. He just needs to fine-tune his command and trust his secondary pitches. The Angels envision Lackey as a workhorse who will pile up lots of innings and wins.

As mentioned in the Fausto Carmona profile I wrote a few weeks back, Lackey is one of those pitchers who is better off moving to the higher levels of the minors in order to show his true ability. The downward plane his height naturally gives his pitches allows his fastball to have some sink, generating him some solid groundball rates. As you can see from the significant difference between his RA and ERA at a few stops in the lower minors, the defense wasn't always helping him out when it should have.

The Angels gave Lackey an extended look at Double-A during the 2001 season before moving him to Triple-A Salt Lake for the remainder of the season:


Year Team             IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2001 Arkansas(AA)   127.1   6.6   2.1    3.2    0.8    7.5   3.89
2001 Salt Lake(AAA)  57.2   6.6   2.5    2.6    0.8   11.7   6.92

Everything went right for Lackey at Arkansas, with decent strikeout rates, acceptable walk rates and a below-average hit rate. Salt Lake was the opposite, as the strikeouts and walks stayed relatively the same, but he couldn't get a ball to cleanly land in a fielder's glove to save his life. Lackey most likely needed to adjust to the more advanced hitters, but the fact that his strikeouts and homer rates stayed consistent was a positive sign for the next season.

Baseball Prospectus 2002 liked Lackey, albeit with a word of caution:

The Angels' top pitching prospect did a good job in 2001. Lackey has pitched a whopping 363 innings over the last two seasons while moving through five levels. His performances at Arkansas and Salt Lake were essentially similar, ERA differences aside. If he's able to survive the workload, he'll be a good major league pitcher.

Lackey also moved up to the third slot in the Angels organizational rankings from Baseball America. As they commented at the time:

Despite his relative inexperience on the mound, Lackey has developed into more than just a thrower. Arkansas pitching coach Mike Butcher taught him a true slider, which has opened up the plate for his 92 mph fastball, power curve and improving changeup. He goes right after hitters and has the control to hit his spots…Lackey's Triple-A performance in 2001 shows he still has to refine his repertoire before advancing to Anaheim. He's big and strong, but letting him pitch 450 innings in 2 ˝ years as a pro isn't the best way to keep him healthy.

As it turned out, Lackey is one of those rare pitchers who can handle consistent 200 inning seasons, as evidenced by the massive number of minor league innings he accumulated in a short span, as well as the fact that subsequently, in all but one of his major league seasons, he has thrown 200 innings or more. the exception is 2004, when he threw 198 innings and then never got a turn in the AL Division Series. I'm certainly not advocating forcing big guys to throw innings until their arms fall off, but Lackey is one of the pitchers who survived that process. Of course, for every Lackey, we have plenty of other big athletes who hurt themselves in Double-A and are never heard from again.

Anyway, to backtrack a bit, Lackey made his debut in 2002:


Year Team             IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2002 Salt Lake(AAA) 101.2   7.3   2.5    2.9    0.4    7.9   3.11
2002 Anaheim(MLB)   108.1   5.7   2.7    2.1    0.8    9.4   4.33

This was his first 200-inning season, and he delivered fine performances at both stops. Lackey improved on his previous Triple-A effort considerably, chopping his hit rate to a more manageable size while increasing his strikeout rates. The strikeouts dropped again when he reached the majors, but he kept himself from shelling out too many free passes while allowing a pretty average hit rate.

Lackey was in the majors to stay, and was handed a job in the rotation in 2003. Baseball Prospectus 2003 was a big fan, believing that Lackey could bring home some hardware during his career:

Lackey has a live fastball, and he's working on the other parts of his repertoire, but the fastball was live enough for him to get to and succeed at the major league level. He matured a lot in just one season, and if he can stay healthy, he looks to be a very good #2 starter for years to come. He could even compete for a Cy Young occasionally. He's pitched a lot of innings at a young age, but Scioscia is smart enough to lean on a good bullpen and not overwork him. If he can get his slider about 20% better, he could be well nigh unhittable.

Lackey wasn't at that level in 2003 or 2004, but he was still a solid pitcher for a contending team:


Year Team            IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9   BABIP   QERA
2003 Anaheim(MLB)  204.0   6.7   2.9    2.3    1.4    .312   4.61
2004 Anaheim(MLB)  198.1   6.5   2.7    2.4    1.0    .317   4.40

If you can throw 400 innings of league-average ball in two seasons, you've providing a lot of value to your team. The only real issue with Lackey was the homers, but he wasn't an extreme flyball pitcher thanks to that big downward sink on his fastball. Baseball Prospectus 2004 requested a change in his repertoire in order to fully realize his Cy Young-caliber potential, and that's just what he did heading into 2005:


Year Team            IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9   BABIP   QERA
2005 Anaheim(MLB)  209.0   8.6   3.1    2.8    0.6    .333   3.79
2006 Anaheim(MLB)  217.2   7.9   3.0    2.6    0.6    .308   4.03
2007 Anaheim(MLB)  202.0   7.1   2.2    3.2    0.8    .313   4.00

With the way AL offenses are structured, a QERA around four has more value than many people realize. An improved changeup and cut fastball helped cut down on the homer totals, and gave him strikeout rates he hadn't seen since his debut in professional baseball back in 1999. He's the top Angels starter until Jered Weaver hits his prime, even with Bartolo Colon's 20-win Cy Young campaign that still makes many analysts twitch.

The one statistic that remained fairly static during Lackey's time in the minors was his home run rate. This isn't to say they were consistently good, as they all crept up towards the one per nine level, and this problem revealed itself further when he reached the majors. Although he's reduced his homer levels somewhat during his time in the majors, he still has problems with teams known for their homer-hitting prowess--teams like the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Rangers all give him issues.

The idea that pitchers don't always perform as well against better offenses is a pretty obvious "no kidding" kind of concept, but Lackey has pitched poorly against two of the better teams in the American League besides his own during his career. This is the sort of problem that can be magnified in the playoffs, or at the least should be something the Angels should be aware of when if they face either New York or Boston in the first round of the playoffs. If you're into designations, this, more than anything, is probably what keeps Lackey in 1A territory rather than as a true number one ace.

This is anecdotal more than anything, but I've never seen Lackey throw a game where he pitched like his career numbers indicate; then again, I live in Massachusetts, and the Sox have hit .340/.403/.555 against Lackey in 265 at-bats, with 1.5 HR/9, almost four free passes per nine, and a 6.27 ERA during his career. I know he's good, but when he gets lit up in every national game against Boston or New York, or struggles in the playoffs, it's tough to get noticed.

Taking a look at his hit charts from this year (courtesy of firstinning.com), you can see that the problem is coming back a little; the increase in his HR/9 could also be worrisome:

hit

The highest percentage of Lackey's balls in play head to center field, where opponents are hitting .449 with 10 homers. He gives up plenty of balls in the infield as well; 50.7 percent of all batted balls are either grounders or infield popups, and opponents are hitting roughly .200 in those situations. It's whenever the ball has some loft to it that Lackey runs into trouble, since opponents are hitting for a lot of power (as they should) but also for high averages to the outfield.

With Vladimir Guerrero's injury issues messing up his routes, Garret Anderson's Garret Anderson-ness (he'd rank fourth-to-last in Revised Zone Rating if he qualified), and Gary Matthews Jr. ranking second-to-last among qualified center fielders for RZR, I can't say I'm shocked that this is a problem for Lackey. If the results of his work in the infield weren't as good, I'd be complaining about his high BABIP ruining the nifty work of his peripherals. Instead, if Lackey had better defensive outfielders behind him, he might drop his BABIP a few points below league average, improving his overall numbers. Of course, Little Sarge's highlight catch from 2006 or no, all of those homers can't come back, no matter who's in the outfield behind him.

Year-to-year, John Lackey is one of the ten best pitchers in the American League, which probably makes him one of the top 15 starters in the major leagues. The fact that he's thrown 1139 1/3 innings in five and a half seasons without hurting his arm in the process is commendable, and a testament to his true value as the ace of the Angels. He's now 28 years old, and under contract for 2008, with a $9 million option for 2009--a steal. Considering he'll most likely pass 1500 innings pitched by that point, the Angels will have the luxury of deciding whether to bring him back and see if he repeats his magic, or letting him become someone else's expensive, post-30 hurler. Either way, the Angels have handled him splendidly from the time they drafted him to the excellent contract extension to the way they've let him carry a load he's capable of bearing through the years. He's fun to watch; I only wish I could see him pitch a good game on national television sometime.

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