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Ageless John Lackey uses sinker to combat time

Now a free agent, John Lackey's increased usage of his improved sinker helped fuel the lowest ERA of his career — at age 36.

Lackey's sinker was thrown harder than ever, while featuring both more run and drop.
Lackey's sinker was thrown harder than ever, while featuring both more run and drop.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

At the tender young age of 37, John Lackey has once again reached free agency. Coming off one of the best seasons of his career (2.77 ERA and 3.57 FIP over 218 innings pitched), Lackey presents an interesting case for teams interested in signing him. His age is an obvious concern, but given both his recent success and track record, he is likely to fall into the Bartolo Colon/Hiroki Kuroda/Tim Hudson mold and earn a multi-year deal in his late thirties.

MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes projects Lackey to sign a three-year, $50 million deal this Winter, and as one of the 20 players to receive a qualifying offer this week, the Cardinals are expecting a number at least beyond that. Beyond the Box Score's own Nicholas Lampe wrote about his free agent case in great detail last month, but I'm more interested in examining a specific pitch — his sinker.

One really interesting facet of Lackey's career has been how his velocity has maintained in spite of the traditional aging curve and his 2012 Tommy John surgery. In fact, per Brooks Baseball, his four-seam fastball velocity was faster in 2015 (92.6 MPH) than in 2007 (91.8 MPH), at the beginning of the Pitch F/X era.

Lackey Velocity
The same thing has happened with Lackey's sinker, although that pitch has improved in ways beyond velocity.

Velocity xMove zMove GB / BIP Usage
2007 92.0 -8.2 8.1 53.5% 19.8%
2008 91.6 -8.4 6.6 49.5% 27.7%
2009 91.8 -8.3 6.7 51.2% 23.3%
2010 91.0 -7.2 6.1 47.2% 12.4%
2011 92.1 -7 5.6 60.6% 4.3%
2013 92.0 -6.9 6.0 58.8% 8.5%
2014 92.2 -7.8 5.3 61.5% 12.5%
2015 92.6 -8.8 4.4 57.8% 21.9%

In his age-36 season, John Lackey has seen his best sinker velocity, run, and drop on record, resulting in a strong ground ball rate for the pitch. He's using it more frequently as well, which might be having an impact on his changeup.

The sparingly-used secondary offering exhibited movement almost identical to the two-seam fastball, while managing the widest velocity margin (8.75 MPH) Lackey's generated between the two pitches in the Pitch F/X era.

Lackey Sinker/Change-up

The results of such an effective off-speed pitch? A 63.2 percent ground ball rate and .000 ISO against the changeup, almost exclusively against opposite-handed batters. The platoon concerns against the sinker certainly didn't disappear, but the changeup and a ground ball-focused curve ball mitigated those problems.

It would be interesting to see if a more balanced usage of changeups and sinkers would lead to more neutralized platoon splits in the future. Against same-handed batters, the sinker was paired with his drop-heavy slider and rarely necessitated the use of another secondary. Right-handed batters earned only a .269 wOBA and 2.59 FIP against Lackey in 2015.

In total, Lackey earned 3.6 fWAR over 218 innings, in no small part because of the improvements to his sinker. It isn't unusual for a veteran pitcher to begin using more two-seam fastballs — an offering that typically emphasizes weak contact over strikeouts — at the expense of their four-seam fastball. However, Lackey isn't doing this.

John Lackey is yet again unusual in that he instead did it at the expense of his secondary pitches — he's thrown more total fastballs as he's aged.

Fastball %
2007 61.3%
2008 60.2%
2009 59.2%
2010 58.4%
2011 50.8%
2013 58.2%
2014 63.7%
2015 68.1%

In adding movement to his sinker, throwing it more often, and adding a more effective changeup, it seems like John Lackey has become a crafty veteran pitcher without actually suffering the diminished velocity typically associated with that archetype.

He's throwing the pitch harder than ever on record while throwing more fastballs in total, and he was very successful doing so in 2015. It was basically as strong a walk year as any 37-year old free agent can hope for. However, Father Time is still undefeated, and diminishing velocity will likely come sooner rather than later for Lackey.

Despite that, he is starting at a fairly high point, and even presuming moderate regression, Lackey still may be a productive big league talent for multiple seasons down the line. There is a team out there (and maybe more than one) that would be happy to make him a multi-year offer, and some team will be content to pencil him in to the middle of their 2016 starting rotation.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.