Sometimes, I don't have a great reason for whatever I say. Sometimes, a guy is just performing well, and I'm not sure why, but it seems like something that more people need to take advantage of.
Today, my ignorance stems from John Lackey.
I mean, I can identify the differences in Lackey's results. His ERA is at an all-time low; his K/9 at an all-time high. In a tiny sample, he's looking like Angel Lackey in his injury return, not Red Sox Lackey, not Make Boston Hate Him Lackey.
The only problem is, I really couldn't tell you why. My first reaction was that he was just getting lucky, that his results weren't really in line with his pitching. But his FIP and xFIP, while higher than his 2.72 ERA, are only slightly so, at 2.95 and 3.04, respectively. His BABIP is .282, which would be a career best, but again, only slightly. None of that is outside the bounds of normal random variation.
So I jumped over to Lackey's PITCHf/x data, wondering if he developed a new pitch or started to rely on an existing one more heavily during his year off. The best I could find is that his two-seam fastball is at its highest average velocity ever, but that's a pitch he's only been recorded to have thrown five times all season, and it's up less than a mile per hour. Certainly that's not worth any conclusions, and the rest of his pitches are at or just below career averages, both in velocity and usage rate.
Maybe he faced a steady stream of bad offenses? That would make sense. Well, again, there are moderate results, but nothing worth a conclusion. His four quality starts have come against Houston (20th in runs scored), Minnesota twice (17th), and Cleveland (fourth). His other three opponents have been 12th-ranked Toronto (two earned in 4.1 innings), ninth-ranked Texas (three in five), and fifth-ranked Tampa Bay (five in 4.1, his one obviously awful outing). He's done better against worse offenses, but still, you can't ascribe all his so-far success to that.
(This has nothing to do with Lackey, but did you realize the Rays were fifth in runs scored? I had no idea.)
His ground ball percentage is at 53.6, an all-time low, so maybe there's some reason to think he's got more sink on his pitches now than before, that he's reinvented himself as a quasi-Derek Lowe (at least, the pre-Rangers Lowe, ugh), but that could just as easily be a fluke as well.
No, the short answer to "Why is John Lackey good right now?" is probably found in the last two words of that question. He's good "right now" because it's just "right now." Over the long run, the odds are good that he'll regress, will be the John Lackey we know and...well, the John Lackey we know. You don't see 34-year-olds come back from Tommy John and pitch the best seasons of their careers.
Anyway, the Yankees have the monopoly on the luck this season. No fair if the Red Sox have it too.
But even if Lackey is only good "right now," that doesn't mean he's terrible. Eight years of track record with the Angels told us that Lackey was a decent pitcher. Not great, no, but decent, worthy of fantasy ownership. Two years in Boston that were capped off by the revelation of a season-losing injury are also data points, but you have to look at the whole resume.
Lackey's not a stud. I wouldn't claim as much. All I'm claiming is that he needs to be owned in more than a third of leagues (his Yahoo ownership is at 33%). If he's available in your league, and you don't have the mid-‘90s Braves staff as your fantasy rotation, there's good reason to take a flyer on Lackey.
At least, I think there is. I'm kind of confused.
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