Friday, February 5, 2010

Lackey And Vazquez

Even before John Lackey signed with the Red Sox for a deal nearly identical to the 5 year, $82.5M one that the Yankees gave A.J. Burnett a year prior, many saw the two as being very similar. Both pitchers are right handed, oft-injured about six and a half feet tall and around 30 years old with intimidating on-the-mound demeanors. Today, however, I wanted to compare Lackey to Javer Vazquez given their parallel entrance to the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry and their disparate reputations in regards to handling pressure.

Lackey has been in the league since 2002 and has averaged 188 innings per season since then. Over that same time period, Vazquez has averaged 215. Lackey's ERA is about a quarter of a run lower over stretch, but that's essentially erased by having to fill in those extra 27 innings a year with a replacement level pitcher.

In general, when John Lackey is healthy, he's a better pitcher than Javy Vazquez. But he's also the Red Sox highest paid player ($18M this year) and is expected to contribute to the top of their rotation. The Yankees are paying Vazquez only about 2/3 as much and hoping that he slots in as their number four.

But what about their reputations under pressure? The idea for that comparison between the two comes from fellow LoHud pinch hitter and editor at the Harvard Crimson, Yair Rosenberg. On Sunday, Yair dropped me an email with the following suggestion/request:
I think the more productive comparison for AL East purposes would not be to Pettitte or Glavine, but to Lackey, whose reputation is that of a big game pitcher, and who is essentially the corresponding addition to this year's Red Sox as Vasquez is to the Yankees. It would be really interesting to see if the stats bear out Lackey's clutch rep - and might go a long way towards predicting the key factors in the coming Yankees-Red Sox race. I'd love to see a post on that.
So here we go. Fighting in the red corner, we have John "Big Game" Lackey, the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series and supposed consummate clutch performer as anointed by his former manager. In the blue corner is Javier "Can't Handle New York" Vazquez, the man responsible for one of the more infamous home runs in Yankee history, who was called out publicly by Ozzie Guillen for not stepping up when it counts.

There is no question as to who has the better postseason resume. Lackey was thrust into the spotlight at an early age, his team reaching the playoffs in his first season in the majors and asking him to start Game 7 of the World Series only four days after his 24th birthday. Since then, he's been back to the postseason 5 times and pitched a total of 78 innings to a 3.12 ERA.

Vazquez, on the other hand, was trapped on bad Expos teams (no offense, Jonah) for the first six years of his career, and didn't pitch during October until 2004. His performance in the postseason has been pretty dreadful (10.34 ERA), but he's only had a chance to throw 15 2/3 innings in the playoffs.

Do these reputations carry over into the regular season? Do their postseason resumes line up with how they handle pressure during games throughout the year? We know the answer to that question when it comes to Vazquez, as we have assessed his clutch reputation at length here and in other places.

That first and more in-depth inquiry into Vazquez's purported lack of clutchiferousness began with his FIP/ERA differential. Coincidentally, Lackey and Vazquez have identical 3.83 career FIPs. However, Lackey's career ERA is 3.81 while Vazquez's is 4.19. Leaving aside team defense - which would be very difficult to quantify over multiple years and teams - it's helpful to look at situational and leverage statistics when trying to explain FIP/ERA differentials.

There are some notable similarities between the Vazquez and Lackey in the chart to the right. Both pitch better with the bases empty than with runners on. They have similar tOPS+ distributions when the score of the game is within 4 runs.

Naturally, the biggest differences come in the smallest sample sizes. Lackey has done much better with the bases loaded than Vazquez and far worse when the game is out of hand.

Both Lackey's distributions are optimal and both are significant. If you could choose a situation to pitch your best in, it would be when the bases were loaded. If you had to give up runs, you would prefer to allow them when the margin of the game was greater than four runs. But there is a limit to how much these numbers can tell us. Lackey has only 141 plate appearances with the bases loaded while Vazquez has 163.

The sample sizes are larger for when the margin is greater than four (394 for Lackey, 811 for Vazquez) but those at bats are by definition less important. Lackey is obviously better in those situations, but not likely by as much as the numbers indicate.

What about the leverage index, though? While Lackey's numbers don't tell a coherent, progressive story like Vazquez's do, it's still clear that he pitches his worst in high leverage situations. Again, high leverage is based on the smallest sample size among the three levels, but each pitcher has over 1000 plate appearances to draw upon. So perhaps Lackey can't simply summon his best performances when the stakes increase.

If there was something about Lackey's internal constitution that gave him to ability to elevate his performance under pressure, wouldn't it show up in the leverage index? Shouldn't he be able to sense when the game is on the line and reach back for a little extra?

This contradiction begins to chip away not at Lackey's resume in particular but at the manufactured archetype of the "big game pitcher". It's one thing to have had good results in the postseason but it's another entirely to universally improve as the leverage increases. You can argue that the playoff results are more important, but Lackey has only faced 328 batters in postseason play. I think the regular season numbers tell us more.

While it may be convenient to label certain pitchers as big time performers and others as choke artists, they rarely fall neatly into one category or another. More correctly, there are players who have performed well in certain situations and others who have not.

As far as this season goes, it will be interesting to see who is better, Lackey or Vazquez. It's very likely that Lackey will have a lower ERA than Vazquez but based on their respective histories, Vazquez should be the better bet to throw more than 200 innings. However, perhaps this is the year that Vazquez's heroic workload over the past decade-plus catches up with him and it's also the first time in 3 years Lackey makes more than 30 starts.

Time will tell, but remember that the Yankees only need to get 2/3 the performance out of Vazquez to get as much value as the Sox do out of Lackey.


  1. A spare thought that didn't make it into the post: The modes of acquisition were very different. The Yankees had to trade two marginal major league pieces and a far away prospect for a year of Vazquez while the Sox had to pony up major free agent money for four years of Lackey. We won't know until both deals are over and we get a better idea of how Atlanta's haul pans out, but I think I'd prefer the flexibility of having Vazquez for only one year even if it necessitated giving up some useful players.

  2. Yanks are saving money for Carl Crawford next yr.

  3. ....and for Cliff Lee

  4. This is a reasonable comparison to make only in the broadest of terms.
    Vasquez is a #4 starter while Lackey is a #2 or #3. Interestingly, however, Vasquez is a better bet to throw 200 innings than Lackey, and 200 innings is what's usually expected from a #2 or #3 guy, not a #4. Will having a #4 pitcher who throws 200 innings be of greater significance to the yankees than having a #2 or #3 guy who throws 178 innings be to the Red Sox?
    I don't know. Maybe some stats geek can figure it out.
    As for me, I think that the yanks didn't want to commit to Lackey because of their interest in Cliff Lee next winter. Lee and CC are good buddies. I'd rather have Cliff Lee than John Lackey. Wouldn't you? Sometimes, GMs are intelligent, and think both in terms of the upcoming season AND the future. Cashman is intelligent.

  5. Very good work, Jay. I like Vazquez's chances with the Yanks, especially slotted at number 4. His breaking stuff is especially nasty, and he is older and more mature than before. We'll see how Lackey fares in Fenway, where he has historically struggled, and in the AL East. I don't think Lackey will be bad by any means, but having an ERA below 4 in the East won't be a gimmee, either.

    Agreed about the Yanks looking at Crawford and Lee.

  6. i still wish they wud bring back wang slot him in the 5th spot if he were healthy n move both joba n phil hughes back to the year the yankees will make a run at cliff lee n hopefully get him

  7. nyyankeefanforever2/9/10, 1:15 AM it!!! Nice post, Jay, but one comparison I think is glaringly absent and the only one I think that that really matters for the Sux highest paid player....Lackey's pathetic record and stats against the Yankees. Between the victories he'll provide us against the Sux and the losses we'll avoid thanks to the Jays shipping Halladay out our division as part of that same deal, Theo and John Henry have likely gift-wrapped us a net dozen or more victories next season without us having to spend a nickel! LMAO!!!

    For more pre-training camp chucks and giggles, check out the musical comedy vid "Joe's Job - The Ballad Of Terry Francona" at youtube. Too funny and and a must-see for Yankee fans and Sux fans alike. Go Yankees! 28 in 2010!!