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A Case for John Lackey Being Overvalued

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Lackey's name has been getting tossed around a lot this winter, in general and specifically as a potential target for the Mariners. Sometimes included in the pro-Lackey rhetoric has been some form of the phrase 'best starting pitcher available'. I hate that sentiment. Just because someone is the best available free agent that winter is not justification for a high salary. Consider that previous 'best available pitchers' include Carlos Silva and Barry Zito. What matters is whether the pitcher is worth his projected value. Where that projected production falls on the available list should have no rational bearing* on the value of that production.

*There is a scarcity of goods argument to be made, but it's not a weighty one and is left out here for simplicity's sake.

John Lackey's tRAs have ranged from 3.5 to 4.0 to 5.2 and back down to 4.1 over the last four seasons. It would seem difficult to get a read on him given those numbers. Turning to tRA* in order to regress the variable home run rates and such back a bit, we have the following figures for 2006-9: 4.4, 4.4, 4.6 and 4.4. Well now, that seems much easier to deal with.

Here is where I my internal red flags begin getting raised. First of all, 51 starts over the prior two seasons. Rich Harden has the same 51 starts. I don't buy John Lackey, at age 31 and coming off two years of sub-30 starts, as a work horse. So why pay him like one? Projecting forward, you have to consider him a 180-inning pitcher and when factoring in a four or longer season contract, you are probably better off dropping that down to 170 or innings.

Lackey's first pitch strike percentage dropped from a career rate around 65% to 63% last year. Not much, but when coupled with a rising percentage in pitches thrown taken for a ball, it gives me some pause as to his control post-injuries. Lackey has been consistently above average on walk rate and even with these signs, is a good bet to stay so. Perhaps just not as far above average going forward. Most damning of all to me is this: 10.2%, 9.7%, 8.8%, 8.5%, 8.3%. Those are Lackey's swinging strike rates from 2005 to 2009 in chronological order. That is a downward trend and not a subtle one either. In other words, projecting Lackey, I expect slightly more walks and considerably fewer strikeouts.

Coupled with his always pedestrian batted ball lines, and where does Lackey stand out? You're looking at average strikeouts, above average, but not stellar, control and average ground balls paired with average durability. What part of this screams top of the rotation pitcher to you?

Now, that's not to say Lackey is bad. Calling back to the tRA*s above, he is decently reliable for a pitcher. The problem is that the reliable level that he's on is just nowhere near the level that he seems to be getting hyped at. A 4.4 tRA is worth just over three wins assuming 180 innings. CHONE's projection is for a 4.0 FIP and 186 innings, worth about 3.3 wins. Given his consistency, over the course of a four or so year contract you might be able to get away with expecting 3.0 to 3.5 wins per year on average over the life on the contract, though I would hold at three wins. Problem is, that's worth about $14 million a year on market value and about $13 million a year on a multi-year contract.

So yeah, if the Mariners were to ink Lackey on a 4/52 deal, I would shrug my shoulders and learn to live with it. The problem is the hype surrounding Lackey is nowhere near 4/52 or 5/65 but is more in the 5/80 range. Let me reiterate, 4/52 is the level that I would perceive to be fair market value for Lackey, not a deal I would be happy with or even call good.

Nearly anyone can be a good deal at the right price. Three months ago, I loathed the idea of pursuing Chone Figgins. He was coming off a gargantuan career year and I figured he was going to command $12-13 million a year. Yesterday came and I love that we signed Chone Figgins because we got him for $9 million. Which is to say, who knows. Maybe I'm wrong and John Lackey will sign for a reasonable amount. In that case, sure.* I'm not betting on it though. Are you?

*No, not really. I couldn't stand watching John Lackey for four or more years.