How good is John Lackey and how rich is he about to be?

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John Lackey put on quite a show last night, tossing six scoreless innings before loading the bases in the seventh, repeatedly saying “this is mine!” when Mike Scioscia came out to pull him with two outs and the Angels up 4-0, storming into the clubhouse after leaving against his will, and then using the postgame interview to complain about the home-plate umpiring.
He’s being criticized in some circles and praised in others, but with free agency looming and last night perhaps being his final game with the Angels the whole performance got me wondering about just how good Lackey has been over the years.
We could talk about win-loss records and strikeout rates and ground-ball percentages and all sorts of other stuff, but here’s a quick glance at his overall performance:

YEAR     GS      IP     xFIP     RANK
2005     33     209     3.75      3rd
2006     33     218     4.33     13th
2007     33     224     4.09     15th
2008     24     163     3.99     12th
2009     27     176     4.11     10th



xFIP stands for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which basically takes everything a pitcher does, removes luck from the picture, and spits out an ERA-like number that’s generally better than actual ERA at predicting future performance. Lackey’s actual ERA during that five-year span is 3.49, but he’s benefited from good defenses, strong bullpens, and a pitcher-friendly ballpark, all of which xFIP removes from the equation.
As you can see Lackey has posted fairly consistent xFIPs over the past five years, with marks ranging from 3.75 to 4.33. Listed next to his yearly xFIP is his rank among AL pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, and those are pretty consistent as well. He was an elite starter in 2005, but has otherwise been in the 10-15 range. Given that there are 14 teams in the league, that basically makes him a mid-level No. 1 starter.
By comparison his opponent last night, A.J. Burnett, has xFIPs of 3.29, 3.85, 3.70, 3.65, and 4.50 during that same span. By that measure he’s been slightly better than Lackey, but Lackey has been slightly more durable and is nearly two years younger. The comparison is relevant not because they matched up last night, but because Burnett received a five-year, $82.5 million deal from the Yankees as a free agent last winter.
In his excellent preview of this offseason’s free agents Matthew Pouliot rated Lackey as the best pitcher available and ranked him third overall behind outfielders Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. That perhaps says as much about the weak free agent class as it does Lackey, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t get at least $60 million over five years and wouldn’t be surprised one bit if he surpasses Burnett’s deal.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.