Perhaps the most notable image of Wednesday’s game did not involve a player.
Late in the contest, bat boy Jared Pinkos rose from his perch behind the plate and moved at a light jog to retrieve a piece of equipment in front of the Red Sox dugout. As he did so, he wiped out completely, his feet leaving from under him as if he’d stepped on a banana peel.
There was another image that did involve a player, as sure-handed first baseman Adrian Gonzalez flailed in the face of the hopeless task of trying to glove a ball that bounced through the crater-like muck of the infield.
The conditions in the Red Sox’ 5-1, rain-shortened, eight-inning loss to the Padres were abysmal, and ill-suited to clean baseball. On a day when John Lackey had a brutal outing – allowing five runs in 3 1/3 inning, with three of the runs coming on (in succession) a bases-loaded walk, hit batter and wild pitch – it would be a mistake to dwell too much on what the outing says about the right-hander.
The excuses seemed real. A pitcher truly could face difficulty in gripping the ball. Moreover, the two rain delays that the right-hander dealt with during his time on the mound – first in slowing the start of the game, and then again in the middle of the third inning – seemingly did the right-hander few favors.
“With the delay, it might have shown more maybe in the second inning after he sat down,” suggested catcher Jason Varitek. “It looked like he couldn’t get as loose, then once he did, it was pretty wet. It was wet and it was obvious that he was loosing some feel. There was a fastball that shot away from him, some changeups. Couldn’t quite figure out what was the best pitch to get him in the zone with in that situation.
“It’s a tough one for him to have to wear because he has been throwing the ball well,” added the Sox captain. “It was sloppy out there. It was even hard for me to throw balls back to the mound. It was that entire game.”
So, suppose one offers Lackey a mulligan for a game when the conditions were comical. What, then, to make of the big right-hander who is now a year and a half into a five-year, $82.5 million deal?
Lackey currently has a 7.36 ERA that is the worst in the majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings this year. He entered the day with a 7.02 ERA that would still be the worst in the majors.
Certainly, his performance has inspired something between skepticism and exasperation from Red Sox observers at times. The visceral reaction of many Red Sox fans was to hope for Lackey to be sent to Daisuke Island and abandoned.
The pitcher’s teammates feel otherwise.
“That’s ridiculous to even say. Lackey’s been doing this for years. This isn’t his first year in the big leagues where you just scratch him off,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “He’s working just as hard as everybody else is. We have no doubts about him. He’s going to bounce back.”
It’s well and good to express that sort of confidence, but with nearly half the season concluded and Lackey in possession of the worst ERA in the majors, words alone are insufficient to re-establish trust in the right-hander. That being the case, here are a few reasons why it is premature to think Lackey is a lost cause.
THERE ARE STRIKEOUTS
Lackey’s stuff was flat before he made his trip to the disabled list and received a cortisone shot in his elbow in May. He was striking out just 4.3 batters per nine innings while walking opponents in nearly equal measure (4.1 batters per nine). In all but one of his seven pre-DL outings, he struck out three or fewer batters.
That being the case, it was worth noting that even on a day when the ball was slipping out of his hand, he still managed to strike out four batters in his 3 1/3 innings of work. That continued a recent upswing. In his four starts since coming off the DL, he has 19 strikeouts in 23 innings (7.4 per nine); in his most recent three starts, he has 17 punchouts in 17 1/3 innings (8.8 per nine).
That suggests that the life on his pitches is on an upward swing. Even in Wednesday’s loss, before the fateful fourth inning, Lackey had allowed just one run (a homer by Will Venable leading off the game) and struck out three through the first three innings, showing good life on his slider and cutter in the process.
“He was throwing strikes,” suggested Sox manager Terry Francona. “I thought he was throwing the ball very well actually.”
Saltalamacchia noted that after Lackey went on the DL, he has shown improved fastball velocity, and his cutter and curveball have both had more power.
“You could tell he was rested and a little bit better,” the catcher said of the difference between Lackey pre- and post-DL.
ERA CAN BE MISLEADING
There’s some luck involved in a pitcher’s line on any given day. It’s now been accepted that there are some elements that a pitcher can control – most notably, walks, strikeouts and home runs – and some he can’t, such as whether a soft line drive finds an empty spot on the field or lands in a teammate’s glove.
So, there have been a slew of statistics developed that are meant to look past ERA – which does not account for the luck of where a ball is hit – and to more accurately reflect the quality of a pitcher’s performance.
One such stat is Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which looks at what a pitcher’s ERA should be based on how many walks and homers he’s allowing given his strikeout rate. While it is clear that Lackey is no Cy Young candidate thus far this year, his FIP of 5.29 looks a lot different than his actual ERA. If he had an ERA that was two runs lower this year, the pitcher would engender skepticism and criticism but not quite full blown suspicion about whether his career could be resurrected.
THE SOX UNDERSTAND THE VALUE OF PATIENCE
A year ago, Josh Beckett’s season represented something of a disaster. He was battling injuries, and through eight starts, he had a 7.29 ERA while showing almost no ability to retire batters on a consistent basis.
The right-hander spent a couple months on the DL and was slightly better down the stretch (4.94 ERA), but still, his year-ending 5.78 ERA was a giant red flag. This year, obviously, the flag has been lowered in a season in which he is leading the American League in ERA.
The lesson? If an organization wants to maximize the value of one of its players, it needs to remain steadfast in its support of him. Sometimes – not always, of course – that support pays off.
THERE IS ANOTHER COMP WHO SUGGESTS THAT IMPROVEMENT IS FEASIBLE
Here’s a strikingly familiar scenario: Former All-Star, ERA champ and Cy Young contender signs a big five-year free-agent deal. In the first season, he logs innings (215), makes all of his starts, wins a bunch of games (going 16-12) but with a mediocre ERA (4.52).
He is expected to use his first year with a new club as a building block. Instead, he is dreadful. He misses time due to injury, and performs poorly when on the hill. Through June 22, he has a 4-6 record and 7.31 ERA.
The start of Kevin Millwood’s Rangers career in 2007 and 2008 (after signing a five-year, $60 million deal) provides a striking point of comparison for Lackey’s move to the Sox. In his first year with the Sox, Lackey was 14-11 in 215 innings with a 4.41 ERA. In his second season, through 11 starts as of June 22, Lackey is 5-6 with a 7.36 ERA.
Based on both stuff, resume and that start to a career with a new team, Millwood wouldn’t be an outlandish comp for Lackey. And so, it is worth noting that the right-hander recovered from his dreadful start to produce a 4.01 ERA in 19 starts down the stretch.
Indeed, over the first four years of his contract with the Rangers, Millwood ended up going 48-46 with a 4.57 ERA that was almost exactly league average while averaging 189 innings a year. It wasn’t exactly All-Star stuff, but it made him a respected and useful contributor to a big league rotation. (In the fifth and final year of his deal, he was traded to the Orioles, for whom he had a dreadful record – 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA – while remaining an innings-eater (190 2/3).
At this point, the Sox would likely accept a similar scenario with Lackey – a guy capable of producing a league-average ERA and logging innings would win plenty of games in the Sox rotation.
WITH THAT SAID …
If one looks very, very hard for the silver linings to Lackey’s terrible start to the 2011 season, then they can be spied through the many clouds. Even so, the reality is that unless he improves significantly upon his performance to date this year, the Sox will face some potentially monumental dilemmas with a right-hander to whom they still owe more than $50 million over the next 3½ seasons.
Moreover, there are extenuating circumstances to his poor performance. The fact that he landed on the DL for an elbow strain and acknowledged earlier this month that he will have to continue to manage the condition going forward.
Moreover, rather than demonstrating complete accountability for his struggles – as Beckett did – Lackey continues to strike defensive postures that raise questions about his state of mind.
Asked a straightforward question following his poor outing on Wednesday about whether the conditions impacted his grip on any pitch in particular, the pitcher became irritated.
“You guys are going to write what you want to write. Whatever,” he said.
For obvious reasons, frame of mind is important in evaluating whether a pitcher can reverse the direction of a season that has been, through the first half, the most trying of his career. Yet while Lackey’s public expressions might be enough to raise doubt about what he can accomplish going forward, within the Sox clubhouse, apparently, the sense of his state is different.
“People don’t understand what a great leader he is for that entire pitching staff. He works his tail off,” said Varitek. “He keeps trying to add and do different things and become better. And he will.”
That, at least, is what the Sox must hope.