Just How Bad Has John Lackey Been?

It's obvious John Lackey is not having a good season but, within the long history of the Red Sox, this is turning out to be one of the worst.

No Red Sox pitcher has ever finished with an ERA over 6.00 while throwing 150 innings in a season.     

That nugget comes from the Twitter account of Brian MacPherson, a Red Sox beat writer for the Providence Journal. The reason that MacPherson bothered to look that up was the day's starter, John Lackey: he entered his Wednesday start against the Blue Jays with 144 innings pitched and an ERA of 6.30. 

Lackey finished the day after 5-1/3 innings, pushing his ERA to 6.19. Now just one out is all that separates Lackey from a rounded-off bit of history, and, given his performance this year, there is little reason to hope he is going to be able to avoid being the only Sox pitcher in their long existence to suffer this badly at the hands of ERA. 

The current five worst ERAs, minimum 150 innings pitched (but including Lackey at 149-2/3 innings) for the Red Sox:

Rk Player ERA IP Year GS
1 John Lackey 6.19 149.2 2011 26
2 Jack Lamabe 5.89 177.1 1964 25
3 Dennis Eckersley 5.61 176.1 1983 28
4 Tom Gordon 5.59 215.2 1996 34
5 Mark Portugal 5.51 150.1 1999 27
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/16/2011.

Lamabe, Eckersley, and Gordon all became relievers, eventually, in part due to those atrocious campaigns (though in Eckersley's case, it took a lot longer). Mark Portugal didn't make it through the season with the Red Sox in 1999, and he never pitched in the majors again. 

At the same time, because of the way the game has changed over the years, using ERA doesn't quite do Lackey's performance justice. This isn't to say that Lackey has been good in 2011, because he has not, but ERA is a number without context, and an ERA of 6.00 in today's game means something completely different from what it would have meant 100 years ago, when Fenway Park was still months away from hosting its first game. It's even different from 12 years ago: Portugal's 5.51 ERA was poor compared to a league average of 4.71 that year, whereas in 2011, that average is 3.93. 

We've got ERA+ to look to for help in this regard, which displays ERA as a percentage better or worse than average, with 100 as the baseline. Portugal's season was just nine percent worse (91 ERA+) than average, while Lackey's is 32 percent worse (68 ERA+). That's a massive difference: Portugal's ERA+ is just the 64th-worst in Red Sox history, minimum 150 innings, rather than fifth, as plain old ERA would lead you to believe.

ERA+ isn't as forgiving for Lackey:

Rk Player ERA+ IP Year GS
1 Jack Lamabe 65 177.1 1964 25
2 George Winter 67 207.2 1906 22
3 John Lackey 68 149.2 2011 26
4 Joe Bowman 71 168.1 1944 24
5 Bill Dinneen 73 243.2 1905 29
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/16/2011.

He's no longer the worst relative to the league, but he's still third. Lamabe was the next-closest to an ERA of six with his 1964, and, when combined with the league ERA of 3.58 from 1964, the top spot becomes his. George Winter's ERA didn't come close in the straight ERA rankings, as it was just 4.12, but he did that in a year where the average ERA was 2.66. In the 1906 World Series, the Cubs faced off against the White Sox, with the Cubs hitting just .196 as a team, and the Pale Hose .198 over the course of six games. That's low even for the standards of the time, but gives you an indication of how much pitching ruled the day.

On a rate basis, there is no saving Lackey, but when we look at counting stats, there have been far worse offenders. Via pitcher wins above replacement (WAR):

Rk Player WAR IP Year GS ERA ERA+
1 Hugh Bedient -2.3 177.1 1914 16 3.60 75
2 Jack Lamabe -1.9 177.1 1964 25 5.89 65
3 Ike Delock -1.7 156.0 1961 28 4.90 85
4 Dick Newsome -1.7 158.0 1942 23 5.01 75
5 George Winter -1.7 207.2 1906 22 4.12 67
6 Joe Harris -1.5 235.0 1906 24 3.52 78
7 Emmett O'Neill -1.4 151.2 1944 22 4.63 74
8 Al Nipper -1.2 159.0 1986 26 5.38 78
9 Don Schwall -1.2 182.1 1962 32 4.94 84
10 Joe Bowman -1.2 168.1 1944 24 4.81 71
11 Dick Newsome -1.2 154.1 1943 22 4.49 74
12 Derek Lowe -1.1 182.2 2004 33 5.42 90
13 Bucky Brandon -1.1 157.2 1967 19 4.17 85
14 John Lackey -1.0 149.2 2011 26 6.19 68
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/16/2011.

It's clear at this point that Lamabe's 1964 was plain old awful, regardless of the angle. Hugh Bedient was worse, though, thanks to an ERA of 3.60 back when the league's best power-hitting team had 11 fewer homers than Barry Bonds hit by himself in 2001. You have to go all the way to #14 to find Lackey via WAR. 

Of course, that's still terrible -- the high note of this post for Lackey is that he narrowly escaped being one of the 10 least-valuable pitchers ever for the Red Sox. Lackey still has two starts left in 2011, though, so there is still time to get that ERA under six. It's been under that mark just three times all season, though, meaning it's likely Lackey's campaign will remain famous for the wrong reasons.

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