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John Lackey deserves benefit of doubt

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 11, 2013 02:03 PM

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"I thought this place would be good for me.
I'm a guy who likes competing and showing some emotion and that is what they want.
When I'm pitching well, I think it'll be a good thing. And I'm going to pitch well.
This thing isn't over."

-- John Lackey, during an interview last week with the Globe's Peter Abraham.

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This much can be said about John Lackey without debate: he doesn't make it easy on himself.

His default facial expression is something between a sneer and frown. He has the body language of an entitled teenager moping that his dad won't give him the keys to the BMW. He embarrasses teammates when they blunder behind him -- and sometimes when they fail to run down uncatchable rockets. He talks like a Simpsons character (which I suppose could also go in the "pros" category). He's been paid way too much money for one year of mediocrity, one year of the worst pitching performance Red Sox fans have ever been subjected too, and one year of rehabilitation.

And as I wrote Friday in my 10 predictions for spring training piece that surely you prioritized reading ahead of digging out of enough snow to bury Dustin Pedroia up to his neck, the stain on his reputation remains from the beer and chicken nonsense of September 2011.

His Red Sox tenure has been an utter mess so far, and three years after signing an $82.5 million contract, he has provided 26 wins, 23 losses, a 5.26 ERA, and a jarring sense that his signing will forever be mentioned with the Rockies' infamous cash-torching deals for Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton.

Yep, that's a lot to overcome. I'm not sure why any Red Sox fan would like him at this point, though the awareness of some of his personal struggles should gain him some sympathy as a human being rather than with the impersonality that we sometimes regard ballplayers.

I've just spent a lot of words reiterating what a bum he's been, further evidence that it's difficult to separate the annoying underachiever that he has been from the possibility of what he can be again.

But Lackey deserves the opportunity to overcome his lousy and/or lost three seasons with the Red Sox, and I think there's a reasonable chance that he does become a valuable, effective starting pitcher again.

First, it must be acknowledged of just how damaged he was the last time he threw a pitch of any meaning. Lackey wasn't hurt in 2011; he was injured, and he shouldn't have been out there. Theo Epstein said they tried to shut him down, but Lackey wanted the ball and there were no better alternatives (sorry, Kyle Weiland).

eckfinn210.jpgI'm not sure about that justification -- the Red Sox have had five pitchers in the past 50 years to throw more than 150 innings in a season with an adjusted ERA of 80 or lower: Lackey in '11, Al Nipper '86, the burning-out Dennis Eckersley in '83, and Jack Lamabe and Dave Morehead '64. Lackey was by most measures the worst among them, with opponents battering him for an .852 OPS. A replacement-level starter would have been a huge upgrade, though I suppose he wasn't as miserable as the Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook tandem last year.

Lackey told the Globe his elbow bothered him for three years prior to his Tommy John surgery in December 2012, which lines up with the suspicion that he was damaged goods when he was signed three years earlier. It's hardly his fault that he took the jackpot the Red Sox offered. But at least now there's some hope that they get some value out of the deal, especially since they have a club option for somewhere in the $500,000 range in '15 because of a clause implemented in case he missed significant time with an elbow injury.

That they felt the need for such a clause probably should have been more a red flag than it was at the time. But now that his elbow is repaired -- he says he feels as good as he has in years -- and he's in such great shape that he almost looks lankier than John Henry, isn't it reasonable to expect that he can at least resemble the pitcher who was one of the AL's best from 2005-08?

I'm not suggesting he'll find his 2007 form, when he led the league in ERA (3.01), adjusted ERA (150), and finished third in the Cy Young balloting behind CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett. He was in his prime then, his age 28 season. He'll be 35 in October. His ace days are past, and no one of reasonable mind expects them to return.

lackeyfinncardrc.JPGBut why can't he be a valuable middle-of-the-rotation starter, one who has had success in big moments (he won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie and pitched a gem in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS against the Red Sox). Lackey's velocity was consistent from 2007-2011, his average fastball in '11 (91.5 miles per hour) actually ranking as his second-fastest annually over that span (he averaged 91.6 in '09).

Nowadays, pitchers sometimes return from Tommy John surgery with a little extra kick on the 'ol heater -- in a weird way, the surgery can be a performance enhancer. Perhaps Lackey benefits from that. Certainly he benefits from being pain-free.

Listen, it's understood why Lackey is so unpopular. In many ways he earned that dubious distinction, and his 5.45 career ERA at Fenway suggests his pitching has rarely made a good impression. But we also remember him beating the Red Sox the last time they were in the playoffs. Now he has a real chance to be part of a revival that might just bring October baseball back to Fenway.

But the autumn is a long time away. The Red Sox are in Florida, awaiting spring and a season of fresh starts. John Lackey has worked hard for his. Give the guy a chance.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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