John Lackey might be slightly overlooked on a Chicago Cubs team that’s almost ideally constructed. He isn’t young and he isn’t really a star — which tend to be the two traits that earn a player attention during the postseason. He is an above-average pitcher, though, and as the Cubs’ starter for Game Four of the World Series, he’s in a position to exert some influence over the club’s chances of winning the championship. With all of his antics on the mound, it’s hard to say Lackey does anything gracefully. What he has done, though is age quite well, putting up one of the best two-year runs among pitchers his age over the last three decades. And here’s something about him that’s relevant for Saturday’s game against Cleveland: while he doesn’t need a generous strike zone to succeed — his pitching ability and the great Cubs defense are enough — Lackey, more than most, is in a position to benefit from one.
Over the past two seasons, John Lackey has pitched more than 400 innings with a better-than-league-average FIP. Over the last 30 years, he’s one of just a dozen pitchers to pull off that feat between the age-36 to -37 seasons. While his 6.7 WAR total over that interval might not seem incredibly high, the only pitchers over the last three decades to pitch more innings with a higher WAR are (listed in order of wins) Randy Johnson, David Wells, Chuck Finley, Dennis Martinez, Jack Morris, R.A. Dickey, Greg Maddux, and Woody Williams .
The relatively even success over the 2015 and -16 seasons doesn’t mean that Lackey hasn’t made adjustments. As Eno Sarris wrote, Lackey improved his change and took a different approach against left-handed batters this season that could have lessened his platoon splits. He both struck out and also walked a few more hitters this year while giving up homers at a higher rate (something to watch for if the wind is blowing out on Saturday), but because of the overall increase in scoring this season, Lackey’s fielding-independent numbers remained nearly identical when taken in context. While he isn’t mowing hitters down, he has continued to record an above-average strikeout rate and walk rate, and the Cubs appear to have gotten a pretty good deal on the two-year, $32 million contract Lackey signed, even if the team did also have to concede a draft pick.
Lackey is a pitcher who relies on swings to get batters out. His strike-zone percentage at 48% is a little below average, but he’s one of just five starting pitchers (Kevin Gausman, Cole Hamels, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander) in 2016 to finish among the top-20 starters in out-of-zone swing rate (O-Swing%), in-zone swing rate (Z-Swing%), and overall swing percentage. Among the right-handers in that group, all of them throw several miles per hour harder than Lackey — and even the lefty Hamels throws a bit harder on average. Lackey relies on being close enough to the zone to (a) elicit swings on pitches that will either be missed or yield weak contact or (b) get called strikes on borderline pitches.
For Lackey, getting strike one is key. This past year, after an 0-1 count, Lackey’s FIP was 2.09, his strikeout rate was 34%, his walk rate was just 6.2%, and hitters put up a .203 wOBA. Conversely, when the count went to 1-0, his FIP was 6.33, his strikeout rate was 19.9%, his walk rate was 12.3%, and hitters put up a .363 wOBA. Pitchers generally perform better after getting strike one, but the difference for Lackey was the biggest in the major leagues this season.
|wOBA after 1-0||wOBA after 0-1||wOBA DIff|
Given its import, it isn’t surprising that Lackey throws a fastball on 69% of first pitches, per Baseball Savant. Here’s where he throws first pitches to right-handed batters.
That’s a lot of pitches in the heart of the plate, and nearly everything (94.9%) is at least a borderline pitch. Here’s how often those pitches lead to called strikes.
Those high, outside ones never seem to be called strikes, but on the outside corner, in the middle of the plate — and especially the inside corner — Lackey seems to get a lot of called strikes. This doesn’t amount to a whole lot of pitches, but cumulatively, the effect of getting more strikes adds up. Over at Baseball Prospectus, they estimate that Lackey has gotten five runs worth of framing this season, one of the top marks in the league. Miguel Montero was Lackey’s catcher for much of the season, and he is regarded as a very good framer. The jury is still out on Willson Contreras, but he’s likely to be the catcher when Lackey starts tomorrow.
Lackey might lose a little of the strike zone in moving from Montero to Contreras, but that’s not the only potential effect. In reading Jon Roegele’s very good Hardball Times piece regarding umpire effectiveness and strike-zone size, it got me wondering how much effect the umpire could have on a pitcher like Lackey.
Roegale rated 90 umpires in his analysis. Of those 90, John Lackey started games with 26 of them behind the plate. I wondered if Lackey’s performance differed depending on the type of umpire. I separated the 90 umpires into three groups of 30 based on their rate of unexpected strikes to unexpected balls, which metrics he converted to an index figure (S:B+). Those three groups are organized as follows: umpires more likely to call strikes relative to their peers (111+), neutral (81-110), and those who are likely to call fewer strikes relative to their peers (80 and below). I then took the total stats of the umpires Lackey pitched to and found their splits on the season.
We see very small differences between the big-zone and medium-zone group, while there does seem to be some impact on scoring for the umpires with the smaller zones. Here is how John Lackey performed this season with those groups.
Given the limited innings involved in these samples, there’s the potential for variance to influence these numbers significantly, but there is at least a linear relationship for Lackey’s performance relative to the expected size of the strike zone. This is what the Roegele’s piece had to say about Game Four umpire Marvin Hudson in his preview for the World Series:
Hudson rated as higher than average as far as his pitch-calling matched with the typical league zone this season. His metrics are also very similar to the previous season, so he seems to have settled into a relatively consistent pattern of calling pitches. Hudson was behind the plate for Game Four of the NLDS when the Cubs knocked out the Giants, so John Lackey already has pitched to his zone in this postseason.
The umpire on Saturday appears to be a fair one with a medium zone, but if the zone happens to differ from normal we could see a change in Lackey’s expected performance. Getting strikes called is important for any pitcher, but it is especially important for John Lackey. If he is to pitch well, he needs to get ahead in the count. He will have the most control over doing so, but any help from the catcher or umpire could make a big difference.