PECOTA says that he’s the 20th most valuable pitcher in baseball long-term, more valuable than Roy Oswalt, Dontrelle Willis, or Justin Verlander. He’s one of just eleven pitchers to post a VORP of 40 or higher in each of the last two seasons. He pitches in a major media market, is in the prime of his career, and has no red flags in his injury or health performance record. And yet, he’s never received a vote for the Cy Young award, never made an All-Star team, and has barely one-fifth the Google hits of Barry Zito.Well, assuming you read the title of this post, you know who it is. It's John Lackey. Included in that entry are the ten other pitchers who hit the VORP requirement, and of those ten, Lackey's last two seasons have been at about the bottom of that list, behind all but Brett Myers. Anyone who's been reading this site a fair amount over the last couple of seasons is aware of my frustrations with John Lackey. I love the guy, and I think he's a great pitcher. But he's incredibly frustrating to watch. He's got a horrible habit of getting ahead of guys 0-2 or 1-2, then taking about 10 more pitches to finish guys off. As a result, he'll routinely hit the 100 pitch mark around the sixth inning. Now, Nate and I know each other fairly well. He's a Chicago guy, and we knew each other through Primer before he started writing for Prospectus. I sent him a quick email with my observations, and he did a little digging, resulting in today's post, which I'll excerpt with his permission:
Who is he?
...Lackey has wound up walking the batter 4.7% of the time that the at-bat starts out with an 0-2 count. That struck me as a high percentage...and in fact it is. I took a sample of 25 arbitrarily-selected starting pitchers,....[O]nly two of these pitchers walked the hitter more often than Lackey. [ed. note: the list contained all quality starting pitchers, ranging from Johan Santana at the high end of the ability scale down to probably Eric Milton at the low end]That's a great point, and as I responded to Nate, my problem isn't so much that Lackey gets hurt more often than he should when he gets ahead, but rather that he sends his pitch count to a level that leads to Scioscia bringing the hook early than he might want to (and definitely earlier than I want him to). For what it's worth, I have no recollection of complaining about Lackey giving up too many two out hits (though for all I know, I may have complained about this before).
Score one for our Angels fan [ed. note: Woohoo!]....
But is walking the hitter following an 0-2 count a bad thing?
Lackey’s OPS allowed following 0-2 counts if .405, which is a low number; the average for pitchers in this sample is .465....
It turns out that there is a correlation between walk rate on an 0-2 count and OPS allowed, but it’s quite weak (.26).... Lackey’s hyperaggressive strategy when ahead in the count might be frustrating to his fans and his managers, but there’s no evidence that it’s poor pitching.
Considering the strength of the Angels bullpen over the last few seasons, early removal of a starter who is otherwise pitching well isn't the problem that it would be on a team with a crappy bullpen, so the net result is probably negligible. That doesn't make it any easier for me to watch him pitch. And ultimately (and this goes for Ervin Santana, too), if he could develop an ability to take advantage of those counts and save himself some pitches, he could add 2/3 of inning to his per game average. That's an extra 20-25 innings per year that he could take back from the pen. FWIW, his innings/start is pretty comparable with Zito, Willis, and Brett Myers, although he trails behind Brandon Webb, and that's before taking into account the fact that Webb plays in a league where he may occasionally be removed for a hitter even when he's going good on the mound.
It's nice to see some respect for Lackey from the new media, and thanks to Nate for digging a little deeper into the numbers. I'll continue to like Lackey, and I'll continue to get frustrated with his inability or unwillingness to put guys away earlier in the count, but if he keeps putting up seasons like he has the last couple of years, the frustrations will be fleeting.