Chicago Cubs: Rotation will need John Lackey of old in 2017

Feb 17, 2017; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher John Lackey (41) and Kyle Schwarber (12) in the bullpen during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 17, 2017; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher John Lackey (41) and Kyle Schwarber (12) in the bullpen during spring training camp at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Cubs’ starting rotation can be the best in baseball this year. While the top three spots are crucial, John Lackey sets the standard.

The Chicago Cubs’ rotation is solid. The top three spots are filled with Cy Young Award candidates. The fifth and (possibly) sixth places are yet to be confirmed; however, great options exist. It is the fourth slot that will set the rotation up for success in 2017.

That place in the rotation is filled by John Lackey. The 38-year-old right-handed pitcher is one of the most competitive players in the game. But, with almost 2,700 innings logged on his arm, how much is left? If the Cubs want to repeat success of the last two seasons, Lackey’s performance must be similar to that of 2015.

More from Chicago Cubs News

Defense helps

To say the 2016 season was a success for Chicago Cubs’ pitching is an understatement. And while the stats support that for Lackey, they also tell another story.

Outside of his 2002 rookie season, in which he only played in 18 games, Lackey allowed the lowest amount of hits for his career – 146. However, he allowed three more home runs than in 2015. If you average it out, he allowed 0.5 runs per hit in 2016, and 0.34 runs per hit the year prior.

What does that really mean? Lackey relied on the defense to help him out. Sure, he struck out a few more batters than he normally averages, but not allowing as many base runners than any other time in his career shows how much the defense helped. Opponents batted .213 against him, by far the lowest mark of his career.

But it is more than just that. His ground ball percentage was his worst ever, while line drive and fly balls were among the highest. Furthermore, 36 percent of all balls in play were hit up the middle, above his career average. And, lastly, Lackey allowed more hard contact than any other year.

Must haves in order to succeed

If 2017 is to be successful, Lackey will need to perform a bit more like he did with that team three hours south. Sure, he allowed 211 hits, but his pitch per plate appearance was 3.48 in 2015. In 2016, that ratio was 3.81. He pitched four fewer regular season games last year, so that ratio could be worse.

Also, allowing more ground balls would be nice, which does force the infield to play defense. I think they can handle that task. But more grounders means less line drives, leading to less runners. Getting more movement from his fastball and cutter would help. For his career, Lackey achieves more than 10 inches on his fastball. That number dropped in 2016 to just nine inches.

Not a tremendous amount of change, but less bite makes it easier to track from the batter’s prospective. Because most of his pitches range between 88-92 MPH, he needs all the movement possible.

During his most successful seasons, the Chicago Cubs’ veteran used his fastballs more than 60 percent of the time. For example, in 2007, Lackey was 19-9 with a league-leading ERA of 3.01 and threw 62.1 percent fastballs. In 2015, that percentage was 67.6 percent and an ERA of 2.77. With the Cubs, he threw a greater number of curveballs (12.2 percent) and change-ups (5.3 percent) since coming off Tommy John surgery. More stress on the arm and more pitches thrown may force Lackey to the disabled list.

Why Lackey

So, what makes John Lackey so important to the Chicago Cubs? He is reliable. If he is on the roster you can pencil him in for 185+ innings. And he is a bulldog on the mound. He is not afraid of a challenge and shows emotion. With the stoic nature of Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, a pitcher with visible energy can be an asset to the team.

Next: Addison Russell gets a raise; Is Kris Bryant next?

Various outlets project Lackey to win 11-12 games with an ERA of 3.52-3.97. You can see all his projects on Fangraphs. If he can keep pitch counts low and find the movement on his fastball, Lackey could perform better than last year. The Cubs will need it to help fight through any valleys they face in the middle of the year, and to keep the rotation healthy.