Assessing Lackey and the Rotations

Boston’s signing John Lackey makes it worth considering what the implications are for the East and, obviously, the Yankees.  I am of the opinion that, while Lackey is a very good pitcher, this should not prompt the Yankees to do anything, or to pursue anyone, they had not planned to anyway.  It should not prompt a series of counter-moves for their own sake, which is what the Yankees did before 2007 with Kei Igawa.  Rather, the key is whether or not they are comfortable with Joba and Hughes as their back-end starters, and if they can solidify a formidable top three.

In Lackey, Boston signed a tough, hard-throwing righty who doesn’t walk a lot of batters, strikes out a fair amount, doesn’t surrender too many homers, and when healthy will likely give them 200+ good innings.  His career numbers are quite good–not great, but quite good:

102-71, 3.81 ERA, 1.306 WHIP, 7.2K/9IP, 2.6BB/9IP, 22 HR (162-game average).

The big question for Boston is whether or not Lackey will be more like 2005-2007, when he was both very good and very durable, or 2008-2009, when he was pretty good but tapered a bit, and missed several starts.  Clearly, they are hoping for the former for, in the last two years, Lackey was quite good but experienced elbow problems that reduced his innings.  Below are his numbers from 2005-2007

2005 14-5 209 3.44 1.335 13 8.6 3.1
2006 13-11 217 2/3 3.56 1.263 14 7.9 3.0
2007 19-9 224 3.01 1.210 18 7.2 2.1

One can see that Lackey, who was age 26-28 during this stretch, threw over 200 innings each year, went a combined 46-25, had a strong ERA (leading the AL in 2007, as denoted in bold), kept the homers allowed well under 20 each year despite the innings pitched, and reduced the walks.  He was undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in the AL.

Yet he has experienced elbow problems the last two years and his numbers, while still solid, were not quite what they were in the previous three seasons:

2008 12-5 163 1/3 3.75 1.231 26 7.2 2.2
2009 11-8 176 1/3 3.83 1.270 17 7.1 2.4

Lackey’s ERA rose a bit but stayed under 4, and his control stayed sharp, keeping his walks well under 3 per 9 innings.  In addition to his reduced innings, the biggest difference was his allowing more homers than before.  Also worth noting was that Lackey, while still striking out over 7 per 9 innings, is beginning to fan fewer batters.  This is not all bad for, while his velocity is a bit less than it was a few years ago, he atones by sinking his fastball more often to pitch effectively to contact.  At the same time, when Lackey misses he pays a bigger price now than he did in the mid-2000s by giving up more long balls.

I certainly don’t think the Red Sox made a poor investment in acquiring Lackey.  His five-year deal will pay him slightly more than Burnett’s $82.5 million from 2009-2013, according to ESPN.  If he is healthy, he should give them 200+ innings, 15-18 wins, and 7K/9IP.  A question worth asking is how he will fare in Fenway, where he has historically struggled, going 2-5 with a 5.75 ERA, and allowing 8 homers in 51 2/3 innings.  Surely, part of that is due to Boston’s strong lineups during those years, which included winning the World Series in 2007, and beating the Angels in the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 (and of course 2004, but that is outside the years I have analyzed here).  But part of that is also that ballpark, which is a hitter’s paradise–the handball wall of the green monster in shallow left, the extremely short Pesky’s Pole in right (302 feet) spreading out to a spacious 380 in right center.  Lackey might do well with Boston by winning games and getting plenty of offensive support while at the same time sporting an ERA at or above 4 for the first time since 2004 (4.63), and allowing homers closer to 2007’s 26 than last year’s 17.

In addition to speculating how he will fare in a hitter’s park in Fenway, I think it is right to question how effective Lackey will be in the tough AL East, where he will likely face the Yankees several times, as well as the Rays.  Historically, the Yankees have fared well against Lackey–5-7, 4.66 ERA, 1.534 WHIP, 12 HR in 102 1/3 IP.  He’s no pushover, but he isn’t Halliday, either.  He is more than capable, but has not historically overwhelmed the Yankees.  The East as a whole has been a step above the AL West, no disrespect intended to Texas or Seattle, which appears to be making a push to unseat the Angels.  As much as teams must now contend with Boston’s improved rotation, Lackey must in turn face stronger division competition.

I would still take the Yankees’ top three of C.C., A.J., and Pettite against Boston or anyone, and still think the Yankees’ top three can compete and more often than not best anybody.  The question now is whether or not the fourth and fifth starters, right now Joba and Hughes, can provide the kind of consistency to allow New York to prevent sustained losing streaks, which their rotation did splendidly in the championship run of 2009.  Joba will likely have the innings cap removed, allowing him to throw 200+ innings if healthy and work regularly after his inconsistency, and likely the inconsistent work down the stretch, resulted in a so-so 2009–9-6, 4.75 ERA, 21 HR and an unacceptable 76 walks and 1.544 WHIP in 157 1/3 IP.  Granted, it was his first prolonged stint starting, and he was working back from his injury-shortened 2008.  He might well have hit a wall.  After a good first four months in which he posted a 7-2 record and a 3.58 ERA, he faltered down the stretch, going 2-4 with a 7.52 ERA.  Whether or not Joba can pitch and pitch effectively over the course of a full, 200+ inning season is key to the Yankees’ fortunes generally, and the steadiness of the rotation specifically.  He needs to be in good shape, something I am not sure just by watching was necessarily the case last season.

Equally important is how Hughes performs as a starter, should that be the case as it now stands.  Last year, Hughes was clearly better relieving (5-1, 1.40 ERA, 2 HR, 65 K, and 13 BB in 51 1/3 IP) than starting (3-2, 5.45 ERA, 6 HR, 31 K, and 15 BB in 34 2/3 IP), experiencing a good bump in his velocity that allowed him to overpower batters, which he struggled to do in 2008.  Worth noting is that while Hughes walked too many batters in his stint starting to begin 2009, he still fanned more batters per 9 innings (8.0) as a starter than he did in either 2007 (7.2K/9IP) or in 2008 (6.1K/9IP).  His curve has been good, but with his pitches, two aspects are crucial for his and the team’s success in 2010–can he develop his complementary pitches, such as a cutter he worked on last year, to accompany his fastball and curve?  Also, how much will he lose off his fastball, which he regularly threw at 95-96 out of the bullpen?  He located it well at that speed, but will need to maintain even better control if he is throwing it for a still good, if reduced 91-92.  As Joba’s transition to starting illustrated, it is reasonable to think that Hughes’s fastball will lose 2-3 mph as a starter, even as he appears to have gotten bigger and stronger.  Should he start in 2010, Hughes may be allowed about 150 innings and would be slotted as the fifth starter to allow him, especially early then later in the season, to get skipped to limit his innings.

It would not surprise me to see the Yankees take a look at Ben Sheets and perhaps sign him to a deal no more than Harden got–$6.5 million for one year–as more or less the going rate for hard-throwing starters recovering from arm injuries. [Edit: Ken Rosenthal has sent word via Twitter that the Yankees are “very interested” in Sheets, “but believe he is in no rush to sign.”] Maybe Gaudin gets a decent look to be the fifth starter, moving either Joba or Hughes to setup work.  Yet I am more than fine letting the kids get a crack starting.  They are kids, so some patience with the process and their development–which has been pretty good–is warranted.  Also, if they are not allowed to start now, when will they?  The Yankees have, in my mind rightly, protected them from overuse just for this reason, while using Hughes to shore up the bullpen in 2009 was a win-win.  But he needs to be stretched out to be a starter while also having a limit to his innings.  Using one of them as a reliever in 2010, which is not what the Yankees envision for them long term, will only set back the process of getting them ready for the rotation.  Additionally, if the Yankees were unwilling to deal one or both of them for Halliday, why not use them in the rotation now?  They are not being asked to be front-line guys now, but rather back-end starters which, matching up Joba and Hughes against other teams’ back-end starters, provides the Yankees a good edge–on paper, at least.

Back to the issue of how Joba and Hughes stack up against Boston’s back-end starters, which appear to be Matsuzaka, Buchholz, and/or Wakefield.  Clearly, Lackey makes the entire rotation stronger by also bumping down two of those three to the putative back end.  Buchholz had a good 2009–7-4, 4.21 ERA, 13 HR, 68 K, and 36 BB in 92 IP.  Turning 26 next August, Buchholz is entering his prime and might well be the fifth starter for, while he has yet to throw 100 in the majors, he threw 99 in AAA Pawtucket last year, giving him 191 total for 2009–plenty to go ahead in 2010, to me.

The big question for Boston is whether or not Matsuzaka will be healthy and effective.  His 2008 was so anomalous as to be untenable–18-3, 2.90 ERA, but an AL-high 94 BB in 167 2/3 IP.  Last year, Matsuzaka experienced shoulder weakness and missed considerable time, going 4-6 with a 5.76 ERA, allowing 10 HR and 30 BB in just 59 1/3 innings.  Yet he returned strong in the last month, going 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA.  If healthy in 2010, expecting 18-3, 2.90 ERA from Matsuzaka still seems quite unrealistic.  Yet as a number 4 or 5 starter, his 15-12, 4,40 ERA, 1.324 WHIP, and 201 K in 204 2/3 IP in 2007 might well be attainable for him and quite acceptable for the team.  What to expect from Wakefield is also an issue, for his 11-5, 4.58 in 2009 was fairly good and would work from the back end, yet his back limited his work last year, in no small part because he seemed considerably out of shape–probably a cause-and-effect cycle with the back injury, not allowing him to work out either as it worsened, but he was still getting hefty.  Being a knuckle-baller, and given Buchholz’s emergence, Wakefield might find himself in middle relief should Matsuzaka be 100% for 2010, ready to spot start if necessary.

The top three starters for New York and Boston are pretty even to me.  Aside from what each team does to round out their lineups–and as of now, Boston is still behind New York after closing in on Mike Cameron–the key to their fortunes appears to be how the fourth and fifth starters fare, with Boston needing players, including two veterans to return to health and previous form, and New York needing two younger emerging pitchers to find their niches and realize their promise.

Published in: on December 15, 2009 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment  

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