Despite Flaws, John Lackey Good Fit as Bullpen Arm

With Game 1 of the Cubs’ NLDS matchup against the Washington Nationals only four days away, there are still some tough playoff roster decisions to be made. Last year, the Cubs chose to go with four starting pitchers for the playoffs and left Jason Hammel inactive. This year, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Jose Quintana are all locks, which would indicate John Lackey might be the odd man out.

Maybe Lackey isn’t deserving of a playoff start, but a spot in the bullpen might not be out of the question. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers to see why the fifth starter is a good fit moving forward:

  • 3.75 – Lackey’s second half ERA, which is respectable.
  • 1.50 – Lackey’s HR/9 in the second half, down from 2.19 prior to the break.
  • 140.1 – Lackey’s career playoff innings pitched, which is almost a season’s worth of innings in the playoffs alone
  • 3.27 – Lackey’s career playoff ERA, which is great considering playoff pressure and intensity.
  • .180  Batting average against Lackey in the month of September, as compared to .273 against Justin Grimm and .293 against Justin Wilson. Why not ride the hot hand?
  • Arrieta – Okay, that’s not a number, but Lackey would be a good insurance policy if Arrieta’s hamstring gives him more trouble.

Lackey made a relief appearance in the season finale on Sunday, pitching one inning and giving up one run. While he isn’t your typical bullpen arm and has only made two regular-season relief appearances in his career, he has earned an opportunity to pitch in the playoffs.

As things stand right now, Lackey, Wilson, and Grimm appear to be in consideration for the final two playoff roster spots. As evidenced by the batting average figures noted earlier, Grimm and Wilson have struggled to get to get outs recently (or overall). Lackey, however, has held opposing batters to a .180 average and has only issued eight walks over 28.2 innings in September. Limiting baserunners and exhibiting good control are good qualities at this point in the season.

It’s obvious that Grimm and Wilson don’t have the playoff resumes Lackey does. He has already proven himself in the crazy days of October baseball time and time again, so why not give him another opportunity to aid the Cubs’ title defense? 

There is, however, one major concern with using Lackey out of the bullpen. The veteran righty has struggled with the longball this year, as he ranks third in the league with 36 home runs allowed. Home runs can completely change the momentum of a game or a series and Lackey has been susceptible to those game-changing hits all season. That could be a recipe for disaster in a close playoff game.

On the other hand, Lackey has done a better job of limiting hard contact contact since the All-Star break, which has been a big key to his improved results. Though he’s allowed a few more fly balls, relatively speaking, his HR/FB rate has dropped by 33 percent (from 21.1 to 14.1 percent) since mid-July. That has led to 0.69 fewer dingers per nine innings, which is nice.

There’s also the matter of need, which the Cubs hope doesn’t come into play. But if anything goes wrong with Arrieta’s side session or with one of the starters during the series, it’s never a bad thing to have a right-handed long reliever in the pen.

Is John Lackey the best bullpen option in the world? No, but there are more reasons to trust the ball in his hands in clutch time than Wilson or Grimm. We’ll find out soon enough what Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein decide, but until then it’s time to prepare for another meat grinder of exciting playoff action.

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