Entering the 2013 season, John Lackey was a symbol of how far the Red Sox had strayed from the "$100 million player development machine" that former GM Theo Epstein once envisioned. The erstwhile Angels workhorse, signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract prior to the 2010 season, posted an 82 ERA+ during his first two years in Boston -- worst in the majors among starters who tossed at least 350 innings over that time frame. Tommy John surgery then wiped out Lackey's 2012 campaign, seemingly burdening the Sox with a $15 million fifth starter and a painful reminder of a time when financial largesse trumped clear-eyed player evaluation.
A curious thing has happened on Lackey's journey to join the likes of Mike Hampton, Darren Dreifort and Chan Ho Park in free agent infamy, though: Lackey, at age 34, is suddenly dealing again. The righty has lost weight and lifted his ERA+ to 145, which ranks 8th among American League starters and is the second-best figure of his career, behind only his Cy Young-caliber 2007 with Anaheim.
Lackey is no longer a laughingstock in Boston thanks in large part to his marked improvement against left-handed hitters. During his gruesome 2011 season, lefties pummeled Lackey for a .514 slugging percentage -- nearly 100 points higher than the MLB average for righty starters and the third-worst among all hurlers, besting just Bronson Arroyo and Chris Volstad. This year, lefties are slugging just .328. Lackey got scorched when he threw low and inside to left-handers in '11, but he's thriving in that spot this season.
Lackey's opponent slugging percentage by pitch location vs. lefties, 2011
Lackey's opponent slugging percentage by pitch location vs. lefties, 2013
Lackey is doing a far better job of keeping the ball down against lefties this season, increasing his rate of pitches thrown to the lower-third of the strike zone from 27% in 2011 to 39% in 2013. That, in turn, has allowed him to boost his ground ball rate versus lefties from 40% to 54%. The only righty starters with a more intense scorched earth policy against lefties are Doug Fister, Justin Masterson, Trevor Cahill and Jose Fernandez.