John Lackey is reportedly planning to pitch again in 2018 and his second half performance in 2017 might justify the Cubs bringing him back. After all, the hurler redeemed his 5.20 first-half ERA with a 3.75 mark following the All-Star break.
With two rotation spots to fill, re-signing Lackey wouldn’t be that crazy, right?
Well, it might be a little crazy. Although it was strong to quite strong, Lackey’s second half was clouded by unsustainable stuff (i.e., sequencing, luck, randomness, etc.). And when comparing Lackey’s body of work from last season to his portfolio in 2016, we find that Father Time finally caught up to one of the oldest active pitchers in MLB.
While Lackey’s 3.75 second-half ERA was better than average, his FIP was an underwhelming 4.78. Likewise, his August and September Statcast FIP (scFIP) marks were a discouraging 5.03 and 4.06, respectively. It appears as though the longtime starter was extremely fortuitous to have roughly a sub-2.00 ERA in September and likely wouldn’t have been able to get away with such fortune if he continued to pitch in a similar fashion.
Setting numbers aside, the big righty’s stuff just didn’t look as sharp in 2017. His slider, which he relied upon heavily throughout his career, moved with much less vigor. Lackey generated was about 19 percent less horizontal movement in 2017 as compared to 2016, and the pitch took an even more precipitous drop during the last month of the season (see chart below). Perhaps this is why batters made 27 percent more contact against the breaking pitch in 2017.
The other kicker is that Lackey’s velocity finally began to dwindle last year. That’s traditionally the case for pitchers of a certain age, but the dip in velo was as evident as his pearly whites. For instance, Lackey’s 92.5 mph average fastball in 2016 was no different than the average throughout his career. But in 2017, he threw a full tick slower than the previous year, which corresponded to a -3.2 wFA (four-seam runs above average), his worst fastball run value since 2011.
The free agent market is stocked with mid-tier pitchers, such as Tyler Chatwood, Jhoulys Chacin, Alex Cobb, and several more. While the Cubs could decide to re-sign Lackey because they know what to expect on the mound and in the clubhouse, many signs suggest his age would be a detrimental factor. Age and/or fatigue certainly plagued his 2017 season and there’s not much reason to believe it won’t do the same in 2018.