CHICAGO -- It was a calculated move by the Chicago Cubs. The free agent pitching market was getting out of control, and teams were asking for Kris Bryant-type talent in trade conversations in order to send them a top young hurler. The Cubs said, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’
“I knew it was a possibility,” Lackey said recently of coming to the Cubs. “Lester has been in my ear for quite a while.”
In giving Lackey a two-year deal worth $32 million the Cubs minimized their commitment, but of course it comes with a risk. No matter how good Lackey was last season -- and he was very good -- he’s a year older, and approaching a point where there could be a drop-off based on age alone. Lackey was also playing for the minimum major league salary, which will motivate anyone looking for their next contract. That’s not to say that was his motivation.
“Winning is the biggest thing for me,” Lackey said.
So how did he produce a career-low 2.77 ERA while making every start last season?
“It was my first full year in the National League,” Lackey said. “The AL and NL are different animals to be honest.”
It’s not the first time we’ve heard that. In fact, the Cubs' top four starters heading into 2016 were all inhabitants of the AL East before coming to Chicago. It’s always been a hitter’s division over there. Facing NL lineups gives pitchers a breather, and Lackey took advantage. His strikeouts (175) jumped while his home run rate decreased.
“St. Louis is a good pitcher’s ballpark,” Lackey said. “I’ve developed some little things I hope can carry over to any ballpark.”
Lackey’s slider was especially good last season -- his swing-and-miss rate shot up from 31.8 percent the previous six years to 37.4 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The chase rate on pitches out of the zone also increased off his slider, from 38.8 percent to 45.3 percent. Incidentally, Lackey was a little unlucky when opponents did put the ball in play off the slider as they hit .380 off him. If that comes back to the norm, his numbers off that pitch could be even better.
“I was pretty decent last year, yeah,” Lackey said with a smile.
There’s no reason to think Lackey can’t pick up where he left off, considering he’s already had a year in the division and knows the Cubs pretty well through his friendship with Lester. And he'll be dropped right in the middle of the Cubs' rotation, a perfect spot for him after quickly rising to ace status with the Cardinals. He should fit in rather easily.
“It adds another dimension to our staff,” Lester said. “A whole other personality. It’s a nice arm to add to it.”
That personality comes with an edge. Whereas Lester is a little more reserved, Lackey is a bit boisterous.
“He’s more vocal on the day he pitches,” Lester said.
Lackey responded: “I get a little more intense on my day I guess. I’m pretty chill on the other days. When you only get 30 chances to help your team I take it pretty darn serious.”
Two years, 60-plus chances in addition to the playoffs for Lackey. That’s what his deal comes down to. Can he keep it up? The interesting thing is, unprompted, Lackey indicated it wasn’t Lester or money or even Joe Maddon who brought him to town.
“My favorite place to come and hang out,” Lackey said of Chicago. “You’re seeing guys take less money to come here. They want to be part of something special.”