The Red Sox have enjoyed a number of incredible contributions this year. David Ortiz has hit as if he’s 27, not 37, posting a .959 OPS. Jacoby Ellsbury stole more than 50 bases and played great defense. Koji Uehara was among baseball’s most unhittable relievers. Clay Buchholz had a sub-2.00 ERA before an injury sidelined him in June. Those are just a few of many examples. But the most surprising contribution might have come from starter John Lackey.
Before he joined the Red Sox, Lackey was at the front of the Angels’ rotation, helping them win the AL West three years in a row from 2007 through 2009. In 2007, he led the AL with a 3.01 ERA and finished third in Cy Young balloting. After the 2009 season, he was a free agent and ended up joining the Red Sox on a five-year, $82.5 million deal.
His career in Boston couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. He finished with a 4.40 ERA, his worst performance since his first two full seasons with the Angels. The struggles continued in 2011, as he posted a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts. He underwent Tommy John surgery in the offseason, knocking him completely out of 2012. So, the Red Sox paid him $48.25 million and got a 5.26 ERA and nothing for the 2012 season.
Lackey was an afterthought when pundits evaluated the Red Sox going into 2013. In fact, on this very page, I wrote back in January, “To expect anything better than replacement-level pitching from Lackey would be a fool's errand.”
Boy, that prediction didn't go so well. Over 29 starts this season, Lackey compiled a 3.52 ERA. His 20.7 strikeout rate is his best since 2007; his 5.1 percent walk rate is a career low; and his 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a career best.
There are two stats that, on first look, make it look as if Lackey has been lucky, but that is not the case. The first is Lackey’s .282 BABIP compared with his .306 career average. The 24-point difference accounts for about 13 fewer hits. But the Red Sox defense that plays behind him isn’t your average defense. It ranks fifth in UZR, according to FanGraphs, and you’ll see a plus-defender at five of eight positions when Lackey takes the hill Saturday in ALDS Game 2 against the Rays.
The second stat is 26, as in 26 home runs allowed by Lackey. In the AL, only seven pitchers allowed more home runs, and, of those seven, only two posted a sub-4.00 ERA. But 22 of those 26 home runs have occurred with the bases empty, a testament to the fact that Lackey has kept runners off the bases by limiting walks, and that the Sox defense has kept runners off the bases by adeptly converting balls in play into outs.
Pitching depth is crucial in the postseason, and the Red Sox have it -- thanks to Lackey. Without him, they would have to rely on Ryan Dempster (4.57 ERA), Felix Doubront (4.32 ERA) or Jake Peavy, who has been mediocre since coming over from the White Sox (4.04 ERA for Boston).
Lackey has recaptured the form that earned him that big contract in the first place, and, if the Rays are going to defeat him, they will have to hope their offense can find holes in the defense and string together hits in rapid-fire succession, or they will have to hit a bunch of solo home runs. It's a tough way to win.