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Slumpbot .200: John Lackey’s career decline continues

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery.

John Lackey, Boston Red Sox

Data: 2-4, 7.16 ERA, 32 2/3 IP, 4.89 FIP, 1.74 WHIP, 1.38 K/BB

Malfunction: Like A.J. Burnett's contract a year earlier, the five-year, $82.5 million deal that John Lackey signed before the 2010 season seemed like an overpay at the time. In the meantime, a bigger problem has erupted, because Lackey is currently pitching more like Oliver Perez with a 7.16 ERA that is nearly twice as high as Burnett's current 3.71.

The best description of just how bad he's been comes courtesy of Cormac Eklof in Irish Central:

Lackey was getting beaten around Fenway Park like an Eastside hopper who wandered too close to the Westside.

Diagnosis: Lackey has been in decline for several years now, and the clearest example is his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which has declined for four straight years from his 2007 career high of 3.44, to 3.25, 2.96, 2.17, and finally 1.38, which is unacceptably low. In fact, in each of the past four years, his strikeout rate has decreased and his walk rate has increased. His swinging strike rate has either stayed the same or decreased each year since 2005, dropping from an above-average 17 percent to a below-average 12 percent. His average fastball velocity is slightly down — his career average is 91.1, and this year it's 90.5. So, basically, he's throwing fewer strikes and more balls and getting fewer swings and misses.{YSP:MORE}

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Fastball velocity isn't nearly as much a problem as location and command. After Lackey's start last Thursday, manager Terry Francona said his pitches seemed to "flatten out," and a flat 90 mph fastball is a recipe for carnage, particularly when he's already having trouble throwing strikes. He's actually getting positive results from both his slider and his curveball this year, but he won't be able to get strikeouts on them unless he can command his fastball. But he's throwing fewer fastballs than ever this year, just 52.6 percent of his pitches, compared to 58.7 percent last year and 62.1 percent in his banner year in 2007. He clearly doesn't have consistent confidence in his fastball, and unless you're Tim Wakefield, it's very hard to do anything as a pitcher when you don't trust your fastball.

Reboot Directions: The first thing is the most basic thing a pitcher learns in Little League: He needs to be able to throw his fastball for strikes, high and low, inside and outside. Everything else is secondary. The Sox play in the most competitive division in the universe, so they're getting understandably impatient while Lackey has tried to rediscover his fastball on a nightly basis. In many ways, it would be a lot easier to accept if he were injured. But right now, it looks like he's just lost.

Which other players are struggling at the start of the season?

Kelly Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks .175/.256/.317, 4 HR, 7 RBIs, 4 SB, 0 CS, 11/38 BB/K
Ever since coming into the league, Kelly Johnson has been a strikingly streaky hitter. The Atlanta Braves non-tendered him after a horrendous 2009, when he hit .214/.286/.359 in the first half — including a .125 average and .396 OPS in June 2009 — and lost his regular second-base job to Martin Prado. The Diamondbacks picked him up and he rebounded to hit like one of the best second basemen in the league, posting career highs in nearly everything. This year, he's even worse, but his .575 OPS in April 2011 was similar to his .577 OPS in August 2008, his .549 OPS in September/October 2007, or even his .678 OPS in June 2010. Part of the problem right now is that he's walking a bit less than he usually does and striking out a lot more. But the biggest problem is his .218 BABIP, and highly fluctuating BABIP is just part of the price of admission with Kelly Johnson.

Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox .180/.320/.320, 3 HR, 14 RBIs, 0 SB, 0 CS, 20/37 BB/K
The thought of Adam Dunn in Chicago was music to nearly every baseball fan's ears, as we all imagined him going to an AL bandbox where all he would have to do is DH and hit moonshots. It seemed like a match made in heaven, but so far, the baseball gods have given The Big Donkey a resounding "Neigh." He's hitting for a low average with a lot of strikeouts and a lot of walks, which is par for the course for him, but his home run per flyball rate is barely half his career average, and his .246 BABIP is 49 points lower than his career average. By his components, he's pretty much the same hitter he was last year, just unlucky. It should all even out as the season wears on.

Jorge Posada, New York Yankees .152/.257/.354, 6 HR, 14 RBIs, 0 SB, 1 CS, 13/28 BB/K
After his 4-for-6, two-homer whupping of the Rangers, Derek Jeter is no longer the most worrisome overpaid geriatric from the 1996-97 rookie class currently struggling on the Yankees. That would be Jorge Posada, owner of the lowest batting average in baseball. Posada still has some power and the ability to take a walk— his six homers are one more than Alex Rodriguez's total — but he's striking out more than ever, making less contact than ever, and his Batting Average on Balls in Play is an almost microscopic .138. It's axiomatic that power and plate discipline are the last things to go, and they tend to last a lot longer than bat speed. Becoming a full-time DH may help him stay young a little bit longer, but any time a 39-year-old hits .150 for a month and a half, you have to start wondering whether the end is near. On the other hand, the biggest problem may be that he just shouldn't be an everyday player. He's a switch-hitter, but this year he has a .735 OPS against righties while being hitless in 23 at-bats against lefties. It might be time to platoon him. It's certainly time to play him less.

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