John Lackey and the Problem With Redemption Narratives

by evanmcmurry

Last night, John Lackey became the only pitcher in history to clinch two different World Series Championships. The previous victory had occurred with the Angels in 2002. This fact, combined with a summary examination of Lackey’s stats and $84 million salary, could easily lead you to believe that Lackey is a dominant pitcher who has spent the last eleven years perfecting his craft.

This is, of course, nonsense. Lackey recently suffered one of the most embarrassing public meltdowns in contemporary sports history. He imploded on the field, to the point that Red Sox fans watched his starts—rarely more than five innings, usually involving seven or eight earned runs—through their fingers. He imploded on the mound, screaming profanities when fly balls dropped for singles, openly berating infielders for letting a ground ball go into the outfield, visibly arguing with managers who tried to take him out of the game and then stalking off the field when he lost. And he imploded off the field, as his wife’s battle with cancer led to divorce discussions.

A notable side effect of Lackey’s implosion: innumerable redemption pieces written by well-intentioned sportswriters trying to make sense of the complete collapse of Boston’s high-level acquisition. Something about John Lackey did strange things to sports commentators, who are already prone to see every hit as Changing the Momentum and every strikeout as a narrative pivot. So for a while in 2011, it seemed as if all sportswriters had been conscripted into reading John Lackey’s every twitch as a sign that he was Turning It Around.

An otherwise insightful piece by Grantland‘s Chris Jones captures this wistful aesthetic perfectly:

“I feel like I’m still building,” he said, “but for the first time in a while, I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”

Most important, John Lackey was smiling.

And the reader was puking. More to the point, Jones was wrong: his profile came only a couple of months before the Red Sox’s historically epic season-end collapse, in which the pitcher played a primary role. The rumors of beer swilling and fried chicken eating centered on Lackey and removed any notion of moral alchemy from his tale: he wasn’t a once-great athlete struggling desperately with decline. He was getting drunk and fat, and then acting like a petulant child when he lost games. Lackey ended the year by undergoing Tommy John surgery, removing him for the whole 2012 season. Many speculated he wouldn’t return, and nobody, including yours truly, wanted him to. The redemption narrative had been irreversibly poisoned.

But there’s another and more abstract element that I think motivated sportswriters into insisting on Lackey’s salvation, besides the obvious professional and structural incentives. “Narratives” in sports are often presented as counterpoised to the drier sabermetric analysis that disregards motive, ethic, and character and focuses single-mindedly on the naked facts of performance. Under the stat-wonk view of things, if you’re a .370 pitcher who averages a certain number of strikeouts and walks per season, you may go on streaks, you may suffer droughts, but ultimately you’re going to wind up pitching about .370. If wonks have a First Commandment, it’s regression to the mean.

Lackey destroyed this. He had never had the lowest ERA around, but it was enough to encourage the (admittedly profligate) Red Sox to dump money on his driveway. He won games, even with some lackluster Angels teams, and had strikeouts to boot. The veer his pitching took when he came to Boston was inexplicable by statistical measures. With each game, Lackey drifted further and further from his own statistical form. If numbers couldn’t explain this, it’s possible something non-measurable was the cause. This was the opening for the redemption narrative, not only as a means of explaining Lackey, but as a response to the cold certainty of sabermetrics. He was a one-man experiment, a question stats couldn’t answer: What happens when a player simply goes off the deep end?

It’s possible to read Lackey’s underrated 2013 season—during Lester’s slump and Buchholz’s stint on the DL, Lackey was, amazingly, the Sox’s ace—as a vindication of either view. A healthy Lackey pitched much closer to the arm the Sox signed several years ago, suggesting his meltdown really was a physical ailment expressing itself emotionally. You could also read his comeback as a moral reformation of a man who had hit rock bottom when publicly exposed as a lout eating and drinking on an $84 million wage.

I don’t buy either. Lackey seemed thrilled to clinch last night, but his anger simmered below the surface for the entire postseason, visible on his aggrieved face during the rain delay against the Tigers two weeks ago, and unmistakeable last night when he argued, quite vociferously, to stay on the mound despite letting two runners on-base. Lackey’s three-year trip through his own personal valley seems to have been hellish, and I’m not sure that he wouldn’t trade last night’s victory to have made those years go away; they don’t appear to have been worth it, not even to him. That, at least, is how I view the player I now find to be most fascinating member of the Boston Red Sox: a guy stats can’t explain, and who doesn’t buy his own narrative.