For a time, a positive relationship existed between John Lackey and Boston. It lasted roughly between the signing of his contract with the Red Sox and when he started throwing pitches from a mound. After that, things went downhill.
Lackey came to Boston from Anaheim wearing a scarlet red "A" on his shirt. In Anaheim, it was literal; In Boston, it was figurative. It stood for ace starting pitcher, though, not the other thing. Lackey was supposed to front a rotation of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Instead what happened to that group was, in order, mediocrity, horrendousness, and then severe injury. That's not exactly what either the team or player had in mind after signing a five-year, $85 million contract following the 2009 season.
John Lackey's player comment in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2013, which I wrote, described it this way:
After playing his part in the ignominious chicken-and-beer clubhouse narrative that allegedly explains the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox, Lackey had the good sense to have Tommy John surgery and miss the Valentine Era. Now healthy, or at least with his elbow healed, he'll attempt to recapture the skills that once made him a top-of-the-rotation starter. Chief among them, an ability to throw all three of his pitches for strikes. PECOTA [BP's proprietary player projection algorithm] and the rest of Red Sox nation will believe it when they see it.
This season, they've seen it. It sounds silly to say that a pitcher who won Game Seven of a World Series in his rookie year, who once finished third for the Cy Young Award, and who threw just over 1,500 innings of 3.81 ERA ball before coming to Boston, was a revelation, but if it's possible, he was. Nobody outside maybe Lackey himself, and possibly a few teammates and family members, expected anything out of Lackey this season.
Part of that could also be something I'm going to call the "recency fallacy", the idea that we all place more importance on the most recent events. We all do that for obvious reasons. But it also opens up a blind spot that makes it easy to dismiss someone who still has productive time left. Someone like John Lackey.
Looking at Lackey's stats, it's easy to see why he's been successful this season compared to his previous three in Boston. For one, he has stats. That's because he's actually on the field and not recovering from surgery. Good first step, that. Beyond that though, his command is vastly improved. His ability to spot pitches and to throw all his pitches for strikes has improved greatly. It makes sense, as he was essentially pitching in 2011 with a torn ligament in his elbow. That makes the precision necessary to pitch at the big league level, let alone well, incredibly difficult -- if not downright impossible.
After walking over three batters per nine innings on average in his Boston career, this season he's walked less than two. Of course, that could be because he's throwing more pitches over the plate and thus getting hit more quickly, but in fact he's given up fewer hits than he ever has before in his career on a rate basis. That means that he's throwing better pitches.
There are lots of theories on what makes a good pitcher, but this much we know: Pitchers who strike batters out (and thus don't allow bleeders, Texas leaguers, or their fielders an opportunity to not make a play), and don't walk hitters (thus minimizing the potential pain from those hits) are often good pitchers. More strikeouts and fewer walks is a recipe for success. Lackey's strikeout rate is higher than it has been since 2006. His walk total is down.
He's posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. He's healthy. Because of those things, he's become the huge part of the Red Sox rotation that he was expected to be all the way back in 2010. How important? Well, he's scheduled to take the ball in Game Two of the World Series, and now with Clay Buchholz potentially injured, he takes on an even greater importance. If Boston is going to come away with their third World Series championship in 10 seasons, they'll likely need Lackey to continue pitching like the top-of-the-rotation starter he's been this season. It'll be tough, because the Cardinals are a very good team. But to Lackey it's nothing new. Heck, he's been doing it most of his career.