That picture above pretty much sums up a lot of Cubs fans’ thoughts of John Lackey. In the days leading up to Friday’s announcement that the Cubs had signed the crusty veteran to a two-year, $32 million deal, there was a pervasive fear that Lackey might harm the character and chemistry of the clubhouse, not to mention the local vagrant population. But it wasn’t just about his abrasive personality scouring some of the shine off this team. There was quite a bit of perfectly justified reticence over handing $16 million a year to a 37-year-old pitcher coming off of a career year.
All that said, I like this signing and I like it for some of the exact same reasons others hate it. That’s not to say I’m trying to be a contrarian or that I am trying to compartmentalize bad behavior in order to win, just that I came at this thing from a different perspective. I’m not going to try to convince you that you’re wrong for feeling dirty about deed — which was far from dirt cheap — but I’m hoping to paint a few shades of gray into what seems to have been a pretty stark conversation heretofore.
Let’s start with Lackey the person. Many see him as a curmudgeon, clinging steadfastly to those unwritten rules of the game many of us would just as soon see incinerated in a furnace of hot takes. Others see him as the kind of unrepentant a-hole who would divorce his wife following her cancer treatments. I’ve even pushed the darkly comedic narrative that he’s a ghoul, kind of like a long-lost Klopek family member, though I’ve not been able to find any substantive evidence to indicate that there’s any truth to that rumor. Then again, I haven’t found anything disproving it either.
A couple getting divorced certainly isn’t uncommon, nor is it reason to vilify someone, but the circumstances under which Lackey’s took place have painted a big target on his back. But what if there’s more to it than an awful human being deserting his wife in her time of need? What if the relationship was failing and the timing of the illness was simply an unfortunate coincidence? Studies have shown that certain forms of cancer do have a significant impact on divorce rates, though breast cancer (which Lackey’s wife battled) is not one of them. Still, it’s not a stretch to imagine how health struggles might have stressed the relationship.
Consider also that Krista Lackey’s diagnosis and subsequent chemotherapy sessions took place from March through June of 2011, paralleling the start of the baseball season. Do you think the travel requirements of his job might have exacerbated any issues the couple was going through? Even absent the illness, professional athletes have a hard time making relationships work. Mark Kreidler of ESPN looked at the issue of athletes and divorce in light of Tiger Woods’ much-publicized marital failures:
…the numbers make a pretty fair case for themselves, at least so far as they can be ascertained. Although the math can be slippery and most of the statistics have been gleaned by anecdotal means, the divorce rate among all professional athletes is generally estimated at somewhere between 60 percent and 80 percent, according to stories in both the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.
There’s a lot of noise in those stats, but I don’t think anyone finds the inflated divorce rates all that surprising. The intoxicating combination of money, free time, and temptation is something a lot of guys just can’t help themselves from imbibing with bacchanalian gusto. I don’t mean to suggest that Lackey was busy getting philanderous with every girlie blushing from LA to Flushing (thanks, D to the A double-N, Y, B-O, Y…), only that it’s entirely possible the athlete lifestyle played a significant role in the dissolution of his marriage.
While the circumstances surrounding the divorce are certainly unsavory, I think Lackey’s on-field stats might dispute the picture of an unfeeling monster many (myself included) have framed him as. Take a look at the new Cub’s numbers and see if you understand what I’m talking about.
An elbow strain forced Lackey to spend some time on DL in May of 2011, but I’d argue that his marital strain had at least as much to do with what was a career-worst season for the burly righty. Rather than a cold-hearted villain, I see a man who was probably broken up over his breakup. I’m not offering absolution here, but I do hope to lend perspective to a situation I myself have too often viewed myopically. Speaking of, perhaps some are seeing the issue of Lackey’s personality through a narrow lens.
Much has been made of the Cubs’ rebuilding strategy and how makeup has been prized almost as highly as talent. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber aren’t just big bats, they’re guys possessed of strong work ethics and a desire to fit in well with both their team and the community. Jon Lester, Addison Russell, Jason Motte, and David Ross? More of the same. Despite being somewhat polarizing among fans, Starlin Castro is clearly a clubhouse darling. Even Edwin Jackson, the most notable personnel failure the Cubs have made in the last few years, was celebrated as great teammate and individual. Why, then, would Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer want to bring in a guy who’s perceived to bit a bit of an a-hole?
Well, this front office is known for being loyal to guys they know and like, and it was Theo Epstein who signed Lackey to 5-year, $82.5 million dollar deal in Boston in December of 2009 (Hoyer had left to become the Padres’ GM a couple months earlier). Epstein witnessed firsthand Lackey’s low point in 2011, though the exec left for Chicago prior the disastrous 2012 campaign that saw Bobby Valentine attempt to navigate the Sox through poisoned waters. Sitting out following Tommy John surgery, Lackey was notoriously spotted drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during his rehab. Though far from alone in such antics, he became the poster boy for the dysfunction that cost Valentine his job (not that I’ve got any love lost for Bobby V).
Both Lackey and the Red Sox rebounded to capture the World Series in 2013, though it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Even reaching the pinnacle of success in his sport brought more infamy for Lackey, who vehemently refused to leave the clinching Game 6 with two outs in the 7th and Matt Holliday coming up to bat. Lackey ended up walking the Cardinals slugger, and while the Sawx faithful gave him a standing ovation when he eventually agreed to give up the ball to manager John Farrell, not many outside of Boston were particularly enamored of the stunt. Thought Epstein was no longer around to see what was going on behind the scenes, Jon Lester was. Boston’s ace developed a friendship with the man who routinely took the bump the day after him and the two have remained close.
And since we’re making connections between Lackey and the Cubs, let’s go all the way back to the start of his career, when he broke in with the Angels. His bench coach during the 2002-05 seasons in Anaheim? Why, that would be Joseph John Maddon. I know it’s easy for all of us to render judgment based on what we’ve read or heard in media reports or maybe even what we’ve seen on the field (Lackey comes off as a bit of a salty crab whose prone to mean-mugging his defense), but I think I’ll defer to those who know him best when it comes to discerning the guy’s fit with the team. I mean, how well do any of us on the outside really know any of these players outside of what we read in a column? In these matters, I fall squarely in the “I can get a good look at a steak by sticking my head up a cow’s ass, but I’d rather take the butcher’s word for it” camp. And when it comes to the assessment of baseball players, I’ll put the Cubs’ meatmongering skills up there with the best of ’em.
Okay, so now that I feel I’ve sufficiently addressed the issue of Lackey’s personality — though I’ll give it one more pass in my conclusion — it’s time to move on to performance. Since I’m not all about re-inventing the wheel, I’m going to lead this next part off with a bit of wisdom from my friend Ryan Davis, the little baby bird who flew away from the Cubs Insider nest a while back. Davis examines Lackey’s fit with the Cubs in an excellent piece for Today’s Knuckleball:
In fact, he pitched well all season for the Cardinals, which I’ve documented. But how he did it is a bit interesting. The movement on his fastball and sinker became more drastic in 2015 than at any point in his career. This appears to have in part come from a new arm angle, which may have been something the Cardinals coaching staff worked with him on. Check out the horizontal movement from 2015 compared to 2014 (which is consistent with the rest of his career):
The result is that these pitches didn’t get hit nearly as hard as at other times in his career. Look at the difference between the batting average and slugging percentage against his fastball and sinker in 2015 compared to 2011-2014 in the second image:
You’ll also note that his usage of his sinker is way up, having thrown it only 808 times over 547.1 innings from 2011-2014 and then 708 times in 218 innings last season. His sinker went from clearly his fourth pitch to being used as frequently as his slider, which can be deceptive for a hitter. When you think a pitcher is going to go to his secondary pitch, it makes things a bit harder when you have no clue what to expect.
As Davis posits, Lackey’s changing pitch had a significant role in his performance in 2015. I don’t have detailed information on his specific sequencing, but I’m led to believe that perhaps Lackey’s changes have allowed him to more effectively band pairs of pitches in order to create a tunneling effect. The former of those linked articles involves a bit more heavy lifting than the latter (which, incidentally, focuses on Jon Lester’s 2015), but both deal with a pitcher’s ability to make various offerings appear as similar as possible for as long as possible. In short, the better a pitcher can disguise what he’s throwing, the better he’ll do.
That’s all well and good, Evan, but what am I to think about the fact that the Cubs just handed $32 million to an aged guy who is coming off what is easily the best season of a relatively unremarkable career? Good question. The thing with Lackey is that you’re going to have to build in some significant regression from last year. Now without the Cardinals’ trademark soul-cleaving necromancy that fueled him last year, there’s no way the Cubs will get the same pitcher we saw in St. Louis. But even something akin to the 3.89 ERA and 190 innings Steamer projects is more than acceptable for a number three starter and will keep many of you from treating him like number two.
I understand why many among you would be skeptical of the continued positive impact of a pitcher who’s past retirement age for most guys, but a little something else I noticed about Lackey has me feeling decent about his potential. A good number of pitchers, particularly those who rely on power, struggle as their velocity drops with age. Lackey, however, has maintained incredibly consistent speed on his fastball over the years. In six seasons since passing the age of 30, Lackey’s heater has experienced no greater than a .1 mph year-over-year delta, remaining between 91.5 and 91.7 mph in each of those campaigns. His other pitches have experienced a bit more fluctuation, but all have remained incredibly close to their career averages over time.
The Cubs’ decision to devote a significant chunk of their limited resources has to do with more than statistics alone though. You’ve stuck with me thus far, so I’m going to ask you to trust me and not tune me out after what I’m about to say. Part of why the Cubs paid John Lackey, and part of why I’m happy about it, is that he brings a little edge and grit to a team that is lacking in both. When you’re done rolling your eyes at what you perceive to be my hot takery, please direct them back to the page and continue reading. Lackey, as Mike Canter wrote in The Rundown, “is a bulldog…a proven winner, despises losing and has closed out World Series championships for both the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels.”
I know how much the educated baseball fan (and I consider myself such) hates to hear about things like “grit” and “grind” and “the will to win,” but there’s something to be said for having experience with success. Granted, in Lackey’s case, that grittiness can act like sandpaper. But the Cubs are hoping it can also be a catalyst around which their young team can galvanize like the layers of nacre in a pearl. If extolling the guy’s virtue as a gamer makes me sound like Hawk Harrelson, so be it. I’d never use such subjective qualities as the primary means by which to evaluate players, but I don’t think you can take a spreadsheet-only approach either.
John Lackey looks like a guy you’d have to be wary of in a rural Arkansan drunk tank and there’s no doubt he’s a flawed human being and an imperfect baseball player (of course, he looks like a saint next to Ray McDonald, so there’s that). But I don’t believe for a second that the Cubs front office, nor Joe Maddon, nor Jon Lester would have green-lit a deal for a guy they thought would have a negative impact on their team, either in the clubhouse or on the field. I’ve made my share of jokes about his depraved predilections and I plan to continue doing so, but I have recently come to the conclusion that much of the condemnation of his personality may perhaps be overblown.
Maybe I’m wrong and this guy ends up being Carlos Zambrano 2.0, a cancerous lesion that must be excised at great cost. But those poisonous personalities tend to metastasize fastest in times of failure and upheaval, none of which should be the case in Chicago. I believe Lackey’s presence will spur this team rather than shank it, perhaps even to the extent that he’ll get the chance to close out a World Series with his third team. And if he allows Cubs fans to see their team hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy, I think they’ll be willing to forgive all manner of foibles — maybe even the trail of bodies — Lackey brings with him.