What’s All This Goodwill We’re Feeling for John Lackey?

Lackey’s having a great season. Sorry we’re not sorry about having hated on him, though.

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Image Credit: Keith Allison on Flickr

We know, there’s been a lot of sports news lately. If it wasn’t the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals, it was the Celtics blowing up their team or the Patriots signing Tim Tebow (wait, has there been other Patriots news? Something about a jersey exchange?) So you can be forgiven if you haven’t had the first place Red Sox front and center in your life (emphasis added to dispel potential disbelief). Now that we’re about to hit the all-star break, if you do plan on tuning in, let me warn you: there will come a time in the next couple weeks when you flip on your TV, look at the scoreboard, see that the opposing team’s offense has been held down all the way into the 7th inning, then look at the guy on the mound in a Red Sox jersey and go, “Who’s that?” Someone will answer, “John Lackey.”

Do not be alarmed—this is the real life and that really is John Lackey. And no, aliens have not abducted the rest of him. He just lost weight. Like, a lot of weight.

Of all the pleasant surprises of this very pleasant Red Sox season, John Lackey, our old fried chicken eatin’, beer swillin’ friend, has emerged as numero uno. The Sox lost last night in Anaheim, but Lackey pitched a fairly dominant seven innings, striking out nine and giving up just 5 hits (the Angels’ two runs came on a pair of solo homeruns). In his last five starts, Lackey’s gone at least seven innings each time (and eight innings once), with an ERA of 2.25.

In fact, Lackey’s pitching better right now than he has at any point in his entire career. His ERA of 2.80 is better than any he’s ever carried through a season before, and his strikeout to walk ratio (4.63) is twice as good as anything we’ve seen from him lately. He’s averaging 8.5 strikeout and 1.8 walks per 9 innings right now; the best he’s done previously in his career was all the way back in 2007, when it was 7.2 and 2.1. Tim Britton’s got some handy graphs over at the ProJo, highlighting some of this.

Lackey, of course, missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and his previous years in Boston have been struggles. Mostly because he stunk, but also because he sort of seemed like a jerk, what with his snarling and his flailing his arms all over the place anytime one of his teammates misplayed a ball. Things bottomed out in 2011 when, after news of his impending divorce became public—and after another difficult start—he lashed out at the media, declaring, “Everything in my life sucks right now.” (Many fans rightly pointed that one thing in his life that didn’t suck was making $16.5 million per year to play baseball, but I digress.) Then things bottomed out again with the Globe’s famous chicken and beer report. The art running with the story was literally a picture of his fat ass.

Admittedly, after spending so much time ragging on the guy, I’ve felt a little guilty watching John Lackey’s success this year. Like everyone else, I really hated him. But now that he’s good, do we just forget all that hate? Especially now that it looks like he soldiered through his 2011 with an injury, partially explaining his poor performance? Should we be sorry?

NAH. Look, we never actually knew John Lackey in the first place. Our hatred of him was based on the TV-character of John Lackey, the one who stunk on the field and was a surly prick in post-game interviews. And he definitely did stink and he definitely did seem like a surly prick. Now, the script has just shifted—he’s good, so we cheer. That’s how sports works. We don’t owe him anything and he doesn’t owe us anything, other than to go out and pitch as best he can. And when he does, I suggest you watch. This season, at least, it’s been an awful lot of fun.