Don't Look Now, But John Lackey Is Good AgainS

All of the signs were crossed when the Angels and Red Sox faced off last night. Los Angeles of Anaheim is now the club struggling to reach .500 despite its massive payroll; Boston, lean and mean (in comparison to previous years, anyway) after its salary dumps last August, is back in first place.

The inversions continue. The game's starting pitchers included a 34-year-old signed to one of the worst free-agent deals in recent memory, and a 30-year-old signed to a notably team-friendly extension. One pitcher's fastball, down far from its past heights, averaged 88 miles per hour; the other's, zipping fresh as it did when he debuted for the Angels all those years ago, sat at 94. But the starter with the good deal is on the Angels, and the one with the bad contract is on the Red Sox. That would be unusual enough, except for that it's John Lackey, the washed-up bust who missed all of last year, who's throwing 94 and looking brand new.

To be fair, Lackey's velocity was never the problem. His results were. He's dramatically improved those. In his first two seasons with the Red Sox, he was walking three batters per nine and striking out barely over six; in 15 starts in 2013, he's walked under two with 8.5 strikeouts—his best figure since 2005—per nine.

What's changed? For one thing, he has a repaired ulnar collateral ligament. He missed all of 2012 after surgery. That probably helped. Approach-wise, Lackey mostly ditched his third and fourth pitches (his change-up and curveball) in favor of more fastballs and sliders. He has the stuff of a good reliever, more than the stuff of a polished starter, and now he's pitching like it. When hitters put his pitches in play, he's getting more ground balls than ever before.

Lackey also shed 15 or 20 pounds before the season began, which may or may not have done anything for his arm but assuredly did sever him aesthetically from the beer-and-chicken mess. Beer and fried chicken? Come awn—check youah facts. Skinny Jawn would nevah do that; it was probably Rich Garces.

The Red Sox have been without their best starter, Clay Buchholz, for a month. (What else is new?) In the same interval, they have added three games to their division lead. Through the last five rotation turns, Lackey has led the way in ERA, strikeouts, and innings. (He went seven or more in every start!) The albatross—slimmed down, just like the Red Sox—now looks an awful lot like an ace.

But we were talking about inversions, weren't we? Here's one more: Lackey threw seven innings of two-run, nine-strikeout ball against the so-so Angels last night, and lost. Jered Weaver and three relievers combined for a shutout.

Image via Getty; most data via the indispensable Brooks Baseball.