Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My goodness, he turned off the lights!

Last night, John Lackey gave up 5 runs in 7 innings to the New York Yankees. While the Yankees’s offense is among the top 2 or 3 in baseball, this is not a good start. And yet, because of starts from earlier this season where he couldn’t even make it out of the third or fourth innings before giving up 7, 8 or 9 runs, it seems like a certain faction in Red Sox Nation thinks that 5 runs in 7 innings (or 4 in 6 like some other recent starts) is acceptable and maybe even good! They are acting like the mother of a 25 year old son who still lives in the basement and is unemployed and the mother gets excited when the fully grown man remembers to turn off his “bedroom” light.

Just how bad is 5 runs in 7 innings, 4 runs in 6 innings or even 3 runs in 6 innings, basically encompassing all of Lackey’s August starts when he has been “good”? Going by ERA those performances work out to 6.42, 6.00, and 4.50, respectively. This year the average ERA for all starters that qualify is 3.93. So even pitching a quality* start (at least 6 innings and no more than 3 runs) is still a below average performance this year. Now that we know how bad in context his start was last night, let’s reminisce on how bad he has been this season**.

*Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski, the best main stream baseball writer around, wrote a column earlier this year about quality starts and opened with a story about how one of his editor friends hates the way the word “quality” is used these days in phrases like “quality start” and “quality over quantity”. “Quality” is a term that demands a qualifier, like high or low, in order to give it real meaning. All of John Lackey’s starts have a “quality” just like all of my BM’s do. They just all happen to be low quality.

**This will not be a statistical analysis on his season, though it will involve stats. So for those who don’t like advanced stats do not worry and for those who love advanced stats note that this is just for fun, I know his strikeout to walk ratio is not that bad especially lately.
  • This season, Lackey ranks dead last in all of baseball (among qualified starters, meaning they have pitched more innings than team games) in ERA at 5.94. This should come as no surprise. The second worst ERA belongs to the Yankees’s A.J. Burnett, also no surprise, at 5.31. In order to reach even these lofty heights by the end of the year, Lackey can’t give up more than about 7 runs the rest of the year assuming he gets 5 or 6 more starts. He has given up 7 or more runs in 4 starts alone this year, as many as he has given up 1 or fewer runs.
  • Let’s put Lackey’s ERA into some historical context, at least over the last 10 years. Over this time there have been 9 pitchers to finish with a worse ERA than 5.94:
    • 2008: David Robertson (6.35); Brandon Backe (6.05); Livan Hernandez (6.05); League Average is 4.33
    • 2006: Joel Pineiro (6.36); Jason Marquis (6.02); League Average is 4.59
    • 2005: Jose Lima (6.99); Eric Milton (6.47); League Average is 4.39
    • 2002: Mike Hampton (6.15); League Average is 4.30
    • 2001: Dave Mlicki (6.17); League Average is 4.46
  • The reason to show the league average ERA for each of these years is to show how bad each pitcher was relative to the rest of the league. Offense is down this year so Lackey’s 5.94 ERA may seem better than these 9 performances, but when you add in the rest of the league, there were really only 2 that were worse, Lima and Milton from 2005. Comparing their performances to the rest of the league (while also taking into account the effects of ball parks) we find that so far this year Lackey has been about 30% worse than league average. In ’05, Lima and Milton were 37% and 34% worse than league average respectively.
  • The most comparable performance to Lackey’s, though not quite as bad, has to be Mike Hampton in 2002. While his ERA was worse, when you take into account the higher league average ERA and the fact he was pitching in Coors Field (a way better hitters park than today’s Fenway), Hamptons performance was only 22% worse than league average. The comparison becomes apt when you remember that 2002 was Hampton’s second year in Colorado. It was also the second year after signing a massive free agent contract that he would never live up to. Sound familiar?
  • Let’s bring it back to this year and see how Lackey ranks in some other important pitching categories. In runs allowed, he is 9th worst, but everyone below him has pitched at least 14 more innings. In hits per nine innings his 11.0 rate puts him just barely 2nd worst, only ahead of Nick Blackburn by 0.1. He also outpaces Blackburn in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) 1.548 to 1.598, but is still 2nd worst. In home runs per nine innings he is 9th worst at 1.3 per nine. In wild pitches, he is 11th worst and is only 2 away from tying Tim Wakefield and his knuckleball. In quality start percentage (the percentage of starts that fit the term “quality” that I defined before) Lackey also is 2nd worst at 35% ahead of only Burnett. Finally, in batters hit by pitch, Lackey ranks dead last with 17, 5 more than his closest competitors.
  • One of those hit by pitches occurred last night when Lackey drilled Francisco Cervelli in the back after he had hit a home run in his previous at bat (oh so his HBP are so high because he’s an intimidator, not because he sucks). I can see why he may be pissed. This was Cervelli’s third homer. In his entire career. His previous two came against titans of the mound Kris Medlen and Cody Eppley. Cervelli actually owns Lackey though. Out of the 21 pitchers that Cervelli has had as many plate appearances against as he has had against Lackey, Cervelli’s OPS (on base plus slugging) is highest against Lackey at 1.867. To give you an idea how high that is, the highest single season OPS of all time was 1.422 by Barry Bonds in 2004. (Funny side note: Lackey has owned another Yankee catcher this year. Jorge Posada is 0 for 9 against him in 2011)
I’m sure there is much more I could say about how bad Lackey has been this year. I just want to remind everyone who reads this that the next time Lackey gives up 4 runs in 6 innings, this is not a good performance. After writing this post I am now terrified at the prospects of Lackey starting a playoff game. Here’s hoping Andrew Miller throws 3 no-hitters in September and forces his way into the number 4 spot in the rotation behind Lester, Beckett and Bedard.

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