Prospect Retrospective: John Lackey
A reader asked me a few weeks ago for a Prospect Retrospective on Boston Red Sox right-hander John Lackey, writing that Lackey "was never a top prospect" and wondering how he developed.
To say that Lackey wasn't a top prospect isn't quite right; he was a very good prospect, so let's take a look at his career.
After a freshman season at the University of Texas, John Lackey attended school at Grayson County Junior College for his sophomore year, where he had success as a slugging first baseman, hitting .440 with 16 homers in 1999. However, he was a also a top prospect on the mound due to his arm strength, and it was as a pitcher that the Angels selected him in the second round, 68th overall. This was the first pick they had in the draft that year, due to signing Mo Vaughn as a free agent.
Lackey had a low-to-mid-90s fastball, but his breaking stuff was unrefined, his control was inconsistent, and he was quite raw. The good side of that is that his arm was low-mileage; the bad side was that he looked like a long-term project.
Lackey was assigned to Boise in the Northwest League for his pro debut and struggled with his command, posting a 4.98 ERA with a 77/50 K/BB in 81 innings with 81 hits allowed. He had a shot at developing into a workhorse starter, but there was also a lot of talk that he could convert to relief if his command didn't improve. I gave Lackey a high-ceiling Grade C in my 2000 book, and wrote that I thought the Angels had taken a severe risk by drafting him, due to the thin nature of their farm system at the time and the lack of a first-round choice.
I was wrong.
Lackey took a huge step forward in his first full season. He started off with five strong starts for Low-A Cedar Rapids (21/5 K/BB in 30 innings, 2.08 ERA), then performed well in the California League (3.40 ERA in 101 innings, 74/42 K/BB, 94 hits) and showed well in Double-A (3.30 ERA, 43/9 K/BB in 57 innings for Erie).
He threw a ton of innings (188) especially considering his lack of experience, but he seemed to hold up just fine and he was sharp at the end as he was at the beginning. His velocity was down a hair from college and he was in the 90-92 range now, but his heater had movement, and his curveball and changeup were very good, giving him three pitches. I gave him a Grade B entering 2001, seeing him as a workhorse starter.
Lackey was effective again in Double-A in 2001 (3.46 ERA, 94/29 K/BB in 127 innings, 106 hits) but was hammered in 10 starts for Triple-A Salt Lake (6.71 ERA, 41/16 K/BB in 58 innings, but 75 hits). On the positive side, he got good reviews for adding a slider to his arsenal, giving him a complete four-pitch repertoire. There was concern about his ability to locate his pitches well, and some grumblings that his heavy workloads had already sapped some velocity. But overall he still looked like a solid prospect and I gave him another Grade B entering 2002, writing that "I don't think Lackey will be an ace, but he should be a good, solid pitcher, providing he doesn't blow his arm out."
Beginning 2002 in Triple-A, Lackey was excellent for Salt Lake, posting 2.57 ERA with an 82/28 K/BB in 102 innings over 16 starts. He made his major league debut in late June, and after a little roster yo-yoing he took over a rotation spot for the second half, going 9-4, 3.66 in 18 starts with a 69/33 K/BB in 108 innings with a 121 ERA+.
He was one of the best young pitchers in the American League right away and a key component of the Angels' post-season drive, capped off with the biggest game of his life: Game Seven of the World Series against the Giants. He allowed one run over five innings, being only the second rookie in history to win Game Seven, joining Babe Adams of the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates in the record book.
He logged two seasons as an inning-eater in '03 and '04, logging slightly worse-than-league ERAs but averaging 200 innings and keeping his WAR positive. He took a step forward in '05 with a 14-5, 3.44 season (123 ERA+, 5.9 WAR), posted a similar campaign in '06 (6.0 WAR), then dominated the league in '07, going 19-9 and leading the American League with a 3.01 ERA and 150 ERA+, though interestingly enough his WAR actually went down a smidge to 5.6.
He remained an above-average pitcher in '08 and '09 though he finally had problems and lost the 200-inning knack. The Red Sox then signed him to an ill-advised five-year contract. As you know, he pitched decently enough in '10 (4.1 WAR), but was horrible in '11 and missed all of '12 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Lackey has gone 128-94 (.577) with a 4.10 ERA in his career, 107 ERA+, with a 1465/569 K/BB in 1876 innings, 37.0 career WAR.
Overall, Lackey has lived up to the expectations he generated in the minors, logging 200+ innings five times with another 198-inning season on the books. He had a great run 2005-thru-2007 (5.9, 6.0, 5.6 WAR) and provided moments of well-timed dominance.
What happens now? Through age 32, Lackey's Sim Score comps are Kevin Millwood, Josh Beckett, Pat Hentgen, Freddy Garcia, Charles Nagy, Matt Morris, Jack McDowell, Jason Schmidt, Brad Penny, and Bruce Hurst.
Millwood, Hentgen, and Garcia had periods of above-average pitching past age 32 but never regained their former glory, durability, or consistency. Nagy, Morris, McDowell, Hurst, and Schmidt were all finished by 34 and Penny looks that way.
Does Lackey have anything left in the tank? He's topped out at 92 this spring but has been working more in the upper-80s. The historical precedents aren't exactly thrilling, but if he does have something left it will likely be as a Millwood-like veteran. I think it is unwise to expect Lackey to return to a 200-inning, 32-start workload without falling apart, but a guy like this could probably still be valuable as a spot starter, logging 100-120 useful innings. Unfortunately, such a usage pattern is difficult to set up nowadays with modern rotations.