Oct 5, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey (41) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays in game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Could John Lackey Rebound Bode Well for Blue Jays Free Agent Josh Johnson

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Jun 17, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Josh Johnson (55) delivers a pitch against the Colorado Rockies at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In his Tuesday article at The Star, our buddy Richard Griffin indicated that the Toronto Blue Jays may not be done with right-hander Josh Johnson and that a cheap, one-year deal may work well for both sides. Griffin’s conjecture, based on misdirection and avoidance by Alex Anthopoulos, is that the Blue Jays may look to see if Johnson can bounce back in 2014.

And just how far does he need to bounce back? Well, let’s just say that Johnson’s 2-8 record, 6.20 ERA, and 18.5% HR/FB rate leave a lot of room for improvement.

Griffin goes on to use Anthopoulos’s comments about Scott Kazmir‘s successful comeback as an stepping stone to believe that Josh Johnson can make a similar rise. However, there may be a better example right in our own division that is cast in a similar mold of Johnson.

Like Johnson, John Lackey had his share of fanfare when he came signed with the Boston Red Sox prior to the 2010 season. He was seen as a big upgrade for a rotation that needed to add another quality arm. However, he was mediocre at best during his first season in Boston, posting a 14-11 record, a 4.40 ERA, and watched his K/BB ratio dip to 2.17.

If his 2010 season was a disappointment, the Red Sox were nowhere near prepared for how far Lackey would dip in 2011. He struggled with every aspect of his game, somehow pitching to a 12-12 record, but posting a miserable 6.41 ERA and a career-low 1.93 K/BB ratio.

Hmm, 6.41 ERA. That sounds a bit similar to one we know doesn’t it? Let’s take a look at Josh Johnson’s stats from 2013 and John Lackey’s from 2011.

Josh Johnson

Year W L ERA G IP H R ER HR BB SO SO/BB
2013 2 8 6.20 16 81.1 105 64 56 15 30 83 2.77
9 Yrs 58 45 3.40 170 998.0 927 410 377 74 338 915 2.71
162 Game Avg. 12 9 3.40 35 206 191 84 78 15 70 189 2.71
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2013.

John Lackey

Year W L ERA G IP H R ER HR BB SO SO/BB
2011 12 12 6.41 28 160.0 203 119 114 20 56 108 1.93
11 Yrs 138 107 4.05 324 2065.1 2134 1015 929 215 609 1626 2.67
162 Game Avg. 15 11 4.05 34 217 224 107 98 23 64 171 2.67
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2013.

Now, after a preliminary glance, it is easy to see that there were certain similarities between the two pitchers’ seasons. Obviously, Johnson threw just half of the innings that Lackey did, but if you extrapolate Johnson’s numbers over a full year, they could mirror Lackey extensively. Johnson did strike-out batters at a better clip and as such posted a better xFIP (3.58 v/s 4.70) than Lackey, but otherwise it is downright eery.

But there is more involved than sheer numbers. Lackey’s struggles could be attributed to elbow issues that resulted in Tommy John surgery after the season. Johnson had to undergo a minor procedure to remove bone spurs from his pitching elbow after the season was completed. At the time of the procedure, Dr. James Andrews indicated that the discomfort could have contributed to his struggles in 2013.

Now, we all know what happened to Lackey. After a year away from the game, the now 34-year-old Lackey bounced back to his pre-Boston form and was a true rock in the Red Sox rotation in 2013. He posted a 10-13 record, but his 3.52 ERA was his lowest since 2007 and his 4.03 K/BB ratio was a career-high. He also pitched to a 3.49 xFIP, indicating that his performance was not a fluke.

Could Josh Johnson, who will be a full four years younger when 2014 begins, be in line for a similar rebound as well? Would the right incentive-laden deal be enough to take the risk?

The Red Sox paid Lackey $15.25 million and get a year tacked on at the end of the deal at the league minimum due to Lackey’s elbow injury in 2012, so their risk paid off in a big way. The Blue jays will have to ask themselves the question for a few more weeks about whether Josh Johnson is worth a $14 million qualifying offer or if he’s someone they not qualify and then try to resign at a lower rate.

For now, that question is very open ended.

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