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John Lackey's declining velocity a concern for the Cardinals

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John Lackey has had his share of good and bad performances since coming over at the trade deadline. Some of the poor performances could be due to luck given his track record, but declining velocity on his fastball is not a good sign for the aging right-hander.

This post isn't about Carlos Martinez or Oscar Taveras
This post isn't about Carlos Martinez or Oscar Taveras
Tom Lynn

John Lackey's first seven starts provide a good template for using numbers to mean whatever you want them to. To wit:

  • Lackey's ERA with the Cardinals is 4.87 to go along with an equally unhealthy 4.62 FIP.
  • Take away Lackey's 9-run bomb against the Orioles, and his ERA is just 3.43 and a FIP also under 4.
  • In four of his seven starts, Lackey has given up at least four runs (4,5,6, and 9)
  • In five of his seven starts, Lackey has pitched at least six innings and given up two earned runs or fewer.
  • John Lackey has given up eight home runs in seven games.
  • Lackey's xFIP, which uses an expected home run rate, is a decent 3.71.
  • John Lackey's strikeout rate has gone down from his time with the Red Sox this season, from 20.3% (7.6 K/9) to 17.6% (6.7 K/9).
  • Lackey has walked just nine batters (5.4%) in 44 1/3 innings pitched for the Cardinals this season.
  • Opponents are hitting .326 on balls in play against Lackey with the Cardinals and he has left just 66% of runners on base, which is bad.
  • Opponents are hitting .326 on balls in play against Lackey with the Cardinals and he has left just 66% of runners on base, which is unlucky
In chart form:

Column A Column B
Take away Lackey's 9-run bomb against the Orioles, and his ERA is just 3.43 and a FIP also under 4. Lackey's ERA with the Cardinals is 4.87 to go along with an equally unhealthy 4.62 FIP.
In five of his seven starts, Lackey has pitched at least six innings and given up two earned runs or fewer. In four of his seven starts, Lackey has given up at least four runs (4,5,6, and 9)
Lackey's xFIP, which uses an expected home run rate is a decent 3.71. John Lackey has given up eight home runs in seven games.
Lackey has walked just nine batters (5.4%) in 44 1/3 innings pitched for the Cardinals this season. John Lackey's strikeout rate has gone down from his time with the Red Sox this season, from 20.3% (7.6 K/9) to 17.6% (6.7 K/9).
Opponents are hitting .326 on balls in play against Lackey with the Cardinals and he has left just 66% of runners on base, which is unlucky Opponents are hitting .326 on balls in play against Lackey with the Cardinals and he has left just 66% of runners on base, which is bad.

If you read only Column A above, you would think Lackey was performing perfectly fine, showing exactly why the Cardinals made the trade. Column B presents the opposing viewpoint and highlights an inconsistent performance. He has provided the Cardinals' innings, but some of those innings, due to luck and poor performance have been of poor quality. The most concerning part about Lackey's performance is not the hits, the homers, and the accompanying runs. The biggest concern with Lackey right now is his pitch velocity.

I first stumbled across Lackey's velocity drop prior to his last start thanks to Daniel Rathman. In his piece at Baseball Prospectus last Thursday, he noted Lackey's loss of velocity and explained some of Lackey's performance problem.

Look a little deeper, though, and you'll find five unearned runs lurking in the background, to go with seven gopher balls in just 38 1/3 innings. Opponents are batting .361 and slugging .583 against Lackey's sinker since the trade; they were hitting .241 and slugging .367 off of it before the deal. And it may be worth noting that while only 84 of the 278 (30.2 percent) sinkers Lackey threw for Boston were terminal pitches in plate appearances, 39 of 100 (39 percent) have been during his first month in St. Louis, suggesting that hitters may be looking for the diminished pitch.

Rathman wrote about Lackey's velocity prior to his last start against Milwaukee, where he gave up six earned runs in six innings while striking out six, walking one, and giving up one home run. Below is a graph from Brooks Baseball showing Lackey's velocity by start in his seven starts with the Cardinals as well as his last two with the Red Sox.

Brooksbaseball-chart__3_

For those more chart-inclined:

Game Fourseam Sinker
BOS@TOR (7/14) 92.97 94.04
BOS@TBA (7/14) 92.74 92.23
MIL@SLN (8/14) 92.55 91.81
SLN@BAL (8/14) 92.28 91.92
SDN@SLN (8/14) 92.06 92.02
CIN@SLN (8/14) 91.34 90.72
SLN@PIT (8/14) 91.76 91.9
CHN@SLN (8/14) 90.54 90.16
SLN@MIL (9/14) 91.16 90.77

Lackey has lost roughly 2 miles per hour on his fastball over the past two months. The next chart from Brooks Baseballshows is yearly averages in 2011, 2013 (he missed 2012 with surgery which is how the Cardinals will receive his services for 500k next year), 2013, and 2014.

Brooksbaseball-chart__4_

The uptick over the years is not as dramatic as seen on the chart. His fastball and his sinker are between 92 and 93 miles per hour. While Lackey's handful of disappointing starts could be chalked up to a small sample size, when paired with a loss of velocity, it could help explain his inconsistency. Loss in velocity often means a loss in performance, especially when the loss occurs above 90 miles per hour.

Lackey's velocity did move up slightly in his last start. If he can get his velocity back, an uptick in performance is to be expected. If it remains at current levels or drops lower, Lackey may drop himself further down the pecking order if he cannot figure out how to compensate in other ways. Lackey's next start is scheduled for Wednesday against the Reds. We are all interested in the results, but consistent performance the rest of the season could be tied to readings on the radar gun.