Read any article on the Cubs and you’ll find praises on pretty much everything they’ve been doing this season. Rightfully so. Their MLB leading 49-26 record deserves some praise. The national spotlight has been focused on their young talent for the first couple months of the season, and even more so recently with the call up of top catching prospect Willson Contreras, who hit a home run on the first pitch he saw in the majors. That sums up how the season has been going so far for the Loveable (No Longer) Losers. But what about the vets? Not many people outside of Chicago have noticed just how good the second-oldest Cub, John Lackey, has really been this season. The 37-year-old has complemented the 1-2 punch of Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester very well this year and is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career: (courtesy of fangraphs.com and brooksbaseball.net):
|John Lackey||K%||BB%||SwStr%||BA against SL|
His strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate are up (a lot), his opponents batting average against is down (a lot), and his walk rate has virtually remained the same. Plus there’s the fact that his slider has been pretty devastating this year. According to the wSL (weighted Slider) metric on FanGraphs, which uses run expectancy to evaluate the effectiveness of a pitch, he’s had the third-best slider in the league to date. Surprisingly, Lackey’s slider has been more effective than some of the most well-known sliders in the game, including Jose Fernandez, Justin Verlander, and Madison Bumgarner. It’s pretty incredible considering his slider has been nowhere near this good in the past. In case you were wondering what it looks like, here’s a clip courtesy of baseballsavant.com:
That’s some nasty break coming in at around 87 MPH, according to MLBAM. Some nasty vertical break, to be specific. Taking a look at seasonal data from brooksbaseball.com, Lackey’s had an increase in average vertical movement this year.
(FanGraphs primer for those who aren’t familiar with Pitch F/X: Pitch F/X movements are based around a hypothetical pitch that has absolutely no spin, so when a pitch breaks “up”, it means that it does not fall as much on the way to the plate as a spin-neutral pitch would.)
For the first time in his career, he is averaging negative vertical movement, without changing the horizontal movement or velocity on the pitch. That’s a borderline curveball. Typically, most breaking pitches with negative vertical movements are curveballs, but Lackey’s slider teeters right on the edge. Surprisingly, It’s not something he hasn’t done before. His minimum and maximum values for vertical movement have been pretty similar the last few years according to Brooks Baseball. And it’s not like he’s throwing in a different spot to righty hitters. His heat maps for his slider for his career and in 2016 look virtually identical:
He loves throwing it low and away. It does look like he’s been getting his pitch more in the dirt this year though. That’s a byproduct of how he’s been maxing out his vertical break this year, and without sacrificing anything else. How’s that, you might ask? That’s a difficult question.
Here’s one interesting theory. There’s only one other pitcher on that leaderboard that averages negative vertical movement. I’ll save you the suspense: it’s teammate Jason Hammel, who has a pretty effective slider himself. And according to the Pitch F/X data from brooksbaseball.com, their sliders are eerily similar:
|2016 Slider Averages||Vertical||Horizontal||Velocity|
Hammel has had one of the best sliders in the past few years. Maybe he’s helped guide Lackey into using his slider more effectively. Purely speculation, but an interesting thought nonetheless. Regardless of his new(ish) changes and whether or not they’re here to stay, hitters better start adjusting to Lackey’s slider.
I am a third year ISE student at the Ohio State University who is blogging to stay active about talking all things baseball. I would appreciate any helpful advice or feedback on my writing style or flow of logic.