First Call: BTF DOWNGRADING JOHN LACKEY TO NEUTRAL

Is eighteen starts a big enough sample to be worried?

We at Backtoufoulke Securities have been considering this ratings action for a few of weeks and have finally decided to downgrade John Lackey from Outperform to Neutral. While it looked like things were slowly turning positive in June, we remain wholly underwhelmed by Lackey’s performance to date and we can no longer recommend this security.

What finally pushed us over the edge was today’s putrid effort at Toronto.  In case you missed it, here are some highlights from John Lackey’s masterpiece this afternoon.

  • Two four-pitch walks in the first to load the bases. By the way, they were back-to-back. The math on that is Lackey threw EIGHT straight balls.
  • The Red Sox bailed him out with three second-inning runs and he responded by walking the Jays leadoff hitter to start the second. Lackey wouldn’t get a leadoff hitter all day (0-5).
  • Lackey gave up two leadoff shots to open the third, the second of which was beautifully snagged by Scutaro. That one gets through and the Jays are in business for another big inning.  Then, with two outs and a runner on second, he pitched around Eddie Encarnacion to get to Jose Molina. If Lackey isn’t up for attacking Encarnacion, it doesn’t say much for his confidence or guts.
  • A leadoff walk to start the fourth is followed by an Alex Gonzalez home run. NICE.
  • A leadoff double in the fifth to Aaron Hill is followed by a walk to Overbay after OB was down 1-2 in the count. And here is the kicker … with runners at first and second and a great GDP guy at the plate, Lackey uncorks one to the fence, allowing the runners to advance. Simply inexcusable.  He then gives up a shot right at Beltre and finally, with a chance to get out of the inning, he punks out and throws FRED LEWIS a 3-1 breaking ball that is tweaked down the third base line.
  • Lackey’s final gamescore was 16. For the record, 50 is considered “ordinary” and anything below 35 is considered “crap.”  

The thesis to this downgrade is really pretty simple. Lackey is giving up way too many hits (almost 11 per 9 innings), walking way too many and striking out way too few. His K:BB ratio (1.48) is now below the pitching version of the Mendoza Line. His average gamescore on the year has now dropped to 45.7. And hitters are hitting him way too hard to pawn this off on “bad luck.”

Listen, this would not be the first time that a pitcher with big credentials came to Boston and struggled. Case in point, Josh Beckett arrived in 2006, forgot to bring his breaking ball, and had a miserable season where he gave up 36 bombs on the way to an unseemly ERA of 5.01. Given that piece of evidence, this is not the final word on John Lackey.

But Lackey has got to the point where he instills absolutely no confidence in this analyst. Forget stuffing an opponent. Lackey has been unable to throw six strong innings let alone seven great innings. As such, we can no longer scan the schedule and feel comfortable with his slot coming up. He failed last Sunday against Baltimore and again today in Toronto, both of which robbed the Sox of needed momentum. And if we don’t have confidence in Lackey’s upcoming starts, then how can we recommend that our clients buy his stock. We can’t and that is why we are downgrading.  

So what needs to be done before we at BTF can get more constructive on Lackey. Well, first off, he needs to cut down on all these baserunners. I can live with the strikeouts being down but he has got to cut down on these walks and hits.  Along those lines, Toronto announcer Buck Martinez verbalized something today that I have been thinking for a couple months. Lackey just doesn’t have a pitch to attack lefties. What he really needs is one of those “Foulke-sy” change-ups that breaks away from lefties and keeps them off his fastball.  He seemed to throw a pretty good one to Overbay in the fifth but he needs to find that pitch or it’s going to be a long second-half.

If Lackey can regroup over the break and find some command, he can still resuscitate his season. But until then, we think investors should steer clear of this stock.

FYI: Ratings

John Lackey: Neutral, Jon Lester: Must Own, Clay Buchholz: Buy, Daisuke Matsusaka: Sell, Tim Wakefield: Neutral, Josh Beckett: Suspended Coverage

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