Lackey has yet to live up to the enormous expectations that came with his equally sized contract. He combined for a 26-23 record and 5.26 ERA in his first two seasons in Boston before missing all of 2012 because of Tommy John surgery.
In addition to a lack of production, Lackey raised the ire of Boston fans because of negative body language, a highly publicized divorce and his boorish attitude when his role in consuming fried chicken and beer with other pitchers during games was uncovered.
Now that he’s preparing for spring training and returning to a major league mound for the first time since 2011, Lackey seems determined to prove his doubters wrong.
The 34-year-old right-hander sounded repentant and defiant all at once in a recent interview with The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham:
I thought this place would be good for me. I’m a guy who likes competing and showing some emotion and that is what they want. When I’m pitching well, I think it’ll be a good thing. And I’m going to pitch well. This thing isn’t over.
In the same interview he was unapologetic about the controversies he has been embroiled in during his time in Boston:
You just take it for the team and move on. The whole thing was blown out of proportion. It wasn’t as big a deal as it was made to be. But that’s Boston; everything gets cranked up a couple of notches.
One reason why Lackey’s words aren’t ringing hollow is because of the stellar shape he showed upon arriving at spring training—early no less. Pictures recently published by The Boston Globe showed him looking much more svelte than when he was last on the active roster.
Some of Lackey’s teammates are already buying his resurgence. Fellow starter Clay Buchholz made a bold prediction in a recent taped interview with The Boston Globe’s Steve Silva, declaring, “I think at some point John Lackey is going to be named the ace of the staff. That’s my call this year.”
New manager John Farrell seems to agree with Buchholz. According to WEEI’s Alex Speier, the skipper recently appeared on the Red Sox Hot Stove radio show and didn’t hold back in his praise for Lackey:
I think he has a chance to have as big an impact on our club as anyone on our roster. He looks great. I think when people seem him for the first time, they’ll probably be surprised about how he reshaped his body...I had a chance to watch him throw. His arm was loose. He was upbeat, looking forward to putting Tommy John and some of those recent experiences behind him.
Some may be reluctant to use the injury as an excuse, but Abraham wrote that the surgeon who performed Lackey’s procedure told the pitcher it was the largest bone spur he had ever seen.
Abraham also wrote that Lackey is misunderstood by fans, who often view him as arrogant. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, who also coached the pitcher in Los Angeles, explained that is far from reality:
You won’t find a more popular guy among his teammates. He’s an enjoyable person to talk to and I know you don’t believe that. John just isn’t conscious of his public image and never has been. He grew up as a baseball player and he considers himself accountable to his teammates, not the fans. It can come off the wrong way.
Provided he leaves spring training in full health, Lackey will be part of the 2013 starting rotation for the Red Sox. With veterans Jon Lester and Buchholz coming off disappointing seasons, the team desperately needs one of its starters to step up.
Could Lackey be that pitcher?
Despite the negativity, Lackey told Abraham that his heart is in Boston and he believes he can contribute to a winning environment:
The chance to win every year is still there. It’s an ownership that cares and tries to field a winning team all the time. It’s a fan base that cares and wants to win all the time. I’m at a point in my career where I’m here to win. That’s really the only thing that is in play for me.
Lackey is saying and doing all the right things, but it remains to be seen if he can win over Boston fans. He has already dug himself quite a hole, but if he can finally pitch to expectations and contribute to team success, he could find himself on the road to redemption.
Statistics via BaseballReference.