The Rundown: What to Make of John Lackey’s Rough Start, Manny Machado Head-Hunting Incident

“I don’t care about the series right now. I’m pissed.”

So went the terse assessment from John Lackey, who was roughed up for 5 earned runs as the Cubs dropped the series finale in Cincinnati on Sunday. Making matters worse was the futility of their bats against soft-tossing Bronson Arroyo. It’s been a really strange 2017 for Lackey so far, and one that’s hard to explain on the surface. Even after looking through all the peripheral numbers, there’s little you can do but shrug.

Is it really possible, then, that Lackey’s rough start is simply the product of bad luck?

Sure, but maybe not entirely. Were you to ignore the 1-3 record and 4.88 ERA, you’d see a 9.75 K/9 mark that’s 34.5 percent better than his career average and 13.4 percent better than his previous career high (8.60), set just last season. Lackey’s walking more guys than he has in recent seasons, but a 3.00 BB/9 is hardly an aberrant outlier. He’s getting more ground balls (47.1 percent) than ever before and his 3.36 xFIP is also a career low.

Okay, so it’s gotta be death by a .400 BABIP, right?

If that were the case, it’d make things much easier, but it’s not. Lackey’s allowing a .277 batting average on balls in play, lower than any other season in his career save for 2016 (a common theme for Cubs pitchers, given the defense behind them). While all the evidence heretofore seems to eliminate the idea that the gruff starter has lost his control and is just working over the plate too much, let’s take a look to make sure.

The heat maps below illustrate Lackey’s all-time pitch location (top) and where he’s been throwing the ball this season (bottom). Take particular note of the horizontal cross pattern formed by the purple regions in the lower graphic and we’ll discuss on the other side.

My initial thought was that perhaps Lackey was putting more pitches in that sweet spot for righties, particularly middle-in and then extending out from the plate. But adding up the six segments in question, we get only 25.53 percent of pitches this season, as compared to 29.41 over the course of his career. And you can see from that flaming red square at the bottom that Lackey is pounding down and away (or down and in to LHH) more than ever.

So I ask again: What gives?

“He looks good to me,” Miguel Montero said of Lackey after the game. “Unfortunately, it feels like every little mistake he’s paying for.”

Yeah, remember that xFIP I referenced earlier? There’s a reason I went with that over FIP, which in Lackey’s case (4.44) is still appreciably better than his ERA. As you may be aware, xFIP is calculated by “replac[ing] a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrendered while assuming a league average home run to fly ball percentage (between 9 and 10% depending on the year).”

And therein lies the rub, as they say. Thus far on the season, Lackey has already allowed five dingers, which comes out to 1.88 home runs per 9 innings. That’s nearly twice his career average (0.96) and roughly 70 percent higher than what he allowed last season (1.10). What’s more, Lackey’s 20.8 percent home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) rate is more than twice his career mark (10.0 percent) and nearly two-thirds higher than 2017 league average (12.5 percent) for MLB pitchers.

I suppose it’s a little late to be pointing it out now, but we’re obviously still so early in the season that we can see wild changes in numbers based on isolated outcomes. Say, for instance, allowing three home runs to the Brewers.

Okay, cool, but are we really comfortable settling for tough luck as the reason for Lackey’s results?

Though nearly every peripheral number is higher or lower in the appropriate direction, there is another oft-discussed drop that could be leading to some issues. I’m writing, of course, about velocity. Lackey’s fastball, which has remained remarkably consistent over the last decade, has dropped off a little this season. After perpetually sitting between 91 and 92 mph, including a career-high 91.8 last year, the four-seam is down to 90.7 mph.

The change is down a little bit too, though the variance from the heater is still roughly the same and has netted even more relative value than in the past. And the slider — which some pitch tracking classifies as a cutter — is sitting in 83-ish range we’ve seen over the past few years, so you’d think it’d be similarly effective. Lackey’s using it more than any year save for 2013, too, so he must have confidence in it.

Except that it’s not as good a pitch, or at least it’s not gotten the results he wants. With a value of -3.0 runs in the early going, Lackey’s slider has been his worst pitch. One look at the heat maps is enough to show you why. Just check out that middle-in location to righties.

Sure enough, right-handed hitters are slugging .750 against Lackey’s slider, more than twice the rate he’s allowed in the past. I won’t bother you with yet another heat map, but when you filter by slugging you can see that hitters are absolutely mashing the slider. The fastball doesn’t have quite as much giddy-up, so hitters have been able to time it up a little better. Then they wait on the cement mixer to miss, at which point they jackhammer it.

The good news in all this is that three of the homers Lackey gave up came in a single game — two on sliders; up and out to Jett Bandy and middle-in to Eric Thames — and another came in Cincy, one of the most homer-friendly parks in the league. And despite what we just saw with the slider results, there is still a measure of misfortune that has contributed to Lackey’s struggles. Patrick Kivlehan‘s bases-clearing double, for instance, came after a fielding error and a ball four call on a borderline pitch.

It looks like a matter of making a few little sequencing tweaks and limiting the mistakes with the slider will yield significantly improved results in short order. If Lackey can do that while continuing to miss bats and induce grounders, the Cubs will be begging him to re-up for another season.

Manny Machado and outdated machismo

Listen, I get that a pitcher needs to be able to have the inside corner and that guys who crowd the plate are going to get brushed back. What I don’t get is the desire to make a hitter wear one in the ribs, or even [extremely Forrest Gump voice] in the buttocks. My objection isn’t so much about the lack of desire to see a man throw a hard sphere at another man’s body as it is with the stupidity of putting free runners on base.

Throwing at a dude’s head, though, that’s a whole ‘nother level of outright danger and douchebaggery that needs to be curtailed posthaste. The latest incident came from Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes, who was apparently out for blood after a hard slide from Machado left Dustin Pedroia with a few spike marks. Maybe it’s just something with dudes named Matt Barnes being hot-heads. Maybe it’s the heated division rivalry.

Whatever it is, I agree with Jeff Passan that it shouldn’t happen again. Bean a guy in the ass and he may have a hard time getting comfortable on the team bus back to the hotel. Hit him in the dome and he may never play again. As Passan points out, there’s another angle to this that goes beyond the propriety of the game and desire for safety.

The union, too, has every reason to support a long suspension for Barnes. While the MLBPA’s job is typically to negotiate down discipline against players, headshots are a significant threat to those the union is supposed to protect. Even if incidents such as this pit union member against union member, the MLBPA’s duty is to support what’s right for the majority of players.

Just a couple days ago, I wrote about the Cubs’ failed attempts to extend Kris Bryant and their other young superstars, citing Machado’s upcoming free agency as part of Exhibit A for why pre-arb players are waiting on big paydays. With a potential $300 million contract in his near future, Machado figures to direct the free agency market for scores of players to follow in the coming years.

In addition to keeping its members safe, the union’s primary goal is to get them paid. Those pursuits dovetail perfectly when it comes to head-hunting, a practice baseball would do well to crack down on hard and fast.

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