John Lackey wants to pitch again, according to both MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi and MLB Network insider Jon Heyman. Lackey enters free agency at 39 years old after having his worst year since 2011 as he recorded a 4.59 ERA, 5.30 FIP, and 4.62 xFIP while giving up 1.90 home runs per nine innings, the highest rate of his career. But after he has said he will play in 2018, the real question around him is whether his decline is real.
Using a terrible fastball less
Throughout his career, Lackey has thrown both a four-seam fastball and a sinker as his fastballs. The ratio of usage between the two pitches was always different, but he almost always threw a fastball type pitch at least 58% of the time. He broke this trend in 2011 when he used a fastball only 50.83% of the time. He had the worst year of his career in 2011, posting a 6.41 ERA, 4.71 FIP, and 4.70 xFIP. In 2017, his fastball usage dipped to 52.25%, and he posted his worst year since 2011,
The twist is he needed to stop using his fastball. Lackey threw one of the worst fastballs in the league last year with a wFB of -12.3, meaning Lackey lost the Cubs 12.3 runs this year when using that pitch when compared to average pitchers.
Relying on a good slider more
Lackey, as a result, has used his slider more frequently, as he threw his slider 35.73% of the time. He threw his curveball 7.22% of the time besides this, resulting in him throwing his breaking pitches 42.95% of the time, the most in his career. And while hitters mash his fastball, Lackey turned hitters over with his slider as he saved 9.7 more runs when compared to average pitchers.
This change has probably resulted in him realizing that he no longer has the velocity to blow a fastball by hitters, so he is trying to get hitters out with deception and break. The key to deception is making the hitter think they see a fastball while they swing at an offspeed pitch. For this to work, Lackey needs to throw at least an average fastball enough so that hitters respect the fastball. Since his fastball is so bad, the hitters will look for the hittable fastball and tee off while they ignore the slider as much as possible. If he decides not to throw hitters a fastball, the hitters will adjust their approach and look only for the slider and just react to the fastball, knowing they will not have to worry about it.
The only way to get around that is to have a breaking ball that hitters cannot hit, regardless of whether they know it is coming. Lackey has proven over the past two seasons to have an outstanding slider, so he might get away with this strategy. If his slider becomes even more unhittable, then he could turn into a solid signing. But he has also shown that he will not have the same value he once had. If hitters adjust and finally learn how to hit his slider, then Lackey could have a long year ahead of him.
If any team looks to sign John Lackey, they should know the major risks that come with signing him. They should also have low expectations for him. Lackey will not carry a team and probably will not really help in stabilizing a rotation. On a playoff team, he should be the fifth guy in the rotation. He has experience, and he will give a good start from time to time, but relying on him to have one more quality year will likely result in a disaster.
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