Everybody is talking about John Lackey‘s recent struggles on the mound, but few have analyzed how and why this guy’s pitching has declined before our eyes since he joined the Boston Red Sox.

Perhaps the largest factor, in my view, is that Lackey, for unknown reasons, lost his effective fastball after he left the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

It sounds too simple to make sense, but I’m telling you that when Lackey last pitched for the Angels in the ’09 playoffs, he had an excellent, moving fastball. When he made his first few starts for the Red Sox in 2010 though, his fastball was not the same. 

The question is: Can Lackey somehow get a little more velocity and zip back on his fastball? 

It’s not an easy thing for a pitcher to revive a fastball, but Lackey must do that to return to anything close to his earlier form as an Angel. If he cannot improve his fastball, it’s hard to imagine him improving much, and it’s easy to imagine him continuing to struggle for as long as the Red Sox are willing to pay him for the rest of his five-year $82.5 million contract. 

Most pitchers need a good fastball. Lackey desperately needs one right now. 

That’s why Lackey’s ongoing problems in 2011 are so troubling: During most of his starts this year, his fastball has looked more like it did in 2010 than it did in ’09.

Any observers have noticed that for much of 2010 and so far this season, Lackey has become more of a breaking ball pitcher. He throws his curve all the time, even when it is not really sharp. It seems like he’s afraid to throw his heater, and one can understand that after seeing batters find it so easy to hit. 

Witness the “meatball” fastball Lackey served to John McDonald of the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning of his last start. McDonald hit it for a home run. Frankly, the pitch was so bad that it seemed many professional hitters would have tagged it.

Lackey has given up six runs or more in four of his seven starts in 2011. His ERA is now 8.01, one of the highest for all starters in baseball. There are plenty of other depressing stats we don’t have to cite.

What happened to the Lackey who pitched a gem against the Red Sox in the ’09 ALDS—a start in which he shout out the Sox and limited them to four hits over 7 1/3 innings? What about the Lackey who had a no-hitter going against the Red Sox well into a game in ’08? 

Granted, Lackey was never a “shutdown” pitcher like C.C. Sabathia. He’s often allowed hitters to make some contact. However, it seemed Lackey was pitching as well as he ever had during ’08 and ’09. 

How could Lackey go so downhill so quickly?

In a rare, excellent analysis of Lackey’s pitching posted on WEEI.com on May 12, Rob Bradford reported Lackey is throwing his fastball less often this season. He said Lackey throws fastballs 52 percent of the time while he used to throw it closer to 58-60 percent of the time.

For example, Bradford said that when Lackey pitched against the Red Sox in that ’09 ALDS playoff game, he threw 80 four-seam fastballs out of his total of 114 pitches, according to “the PitchFX tool.”

His fastball that night averaged 92.25 miles per hour. During the 2011 season though, Bradford said Lackey’s fastball has averaged 90.27 miles per hour. 

In 2009 and before, Lackey relied on his fastball a lot to complement his outstanding curveball.  Those were the two pitches he used the most and that he relied on to get hitters out. He also used a changeup and slider as secondary pitches. 

At the end of the ’09 season, I posted an item on my Red Sox blog about how Lackey had improved as a pitcher over the previous year or two. I noted his moving fastball and mental toughness on the mound. I noted not only his ’09 ALDS performance against the Sox but also his ’09 ALCS performance against the New York Yankees, when he held the Bombers to three runs over seven innings, even though the Angels didn’t win that game.

I don’t know what happened to Lackey between the end of ’09 and the start of the 2010 season.

Maybe Red Sox pitching coach Curt Young and Lackey should go back and study the details of his mechanics at the end of ’09. 

It feels hard to believe that Lackey could just lose his fastball that quickly. Red Sox fans all hope he can get it back.

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