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Meet John Lackey, Giants postseason nemesis

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The Giants have seen John Lackey in a Cubs uniform just once, but they’re familiar with him from two other postseason starts. Here’s who he is and what he throws.

this guy, man
this guy, man
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

John Lackey turns 38 next week. If there’s any consolation to the Giants losing Game 7 of a World Series to a mostly unknown rookie, it’s that the rookie pitched for 14 seasons. He’s essentially had the career of Catfish Hunter, a Hall of Famer, with just a little less health. It would have felt worse, somehow, if Lackey had vanished into the ether after 2002, one of those random postseason sprites that seems less real the more time passes.

It’s also allowed him to become an underrated Giants nemesis. He’s the worst and the best, reminding us of 2002 ...

... and also 2014:

Please pay attention to something I just noticed: After the bunt is thrown down the line in the bottom of the 10th, and as the Giants celebrate, you can hear the same woman screaming that you hear after the Ishikawa home run. It’s fainter in this clip, but it’s unmistakeable. My hat is off. That is impressive.

Anyway, we’re talking about Lackey, who gave up the original Literally Travis Ishikawa hit in that Game 3. It was a ball that probably should have been caught, and here’s how he reacted:

I don’t know, maybe don’t give up the 420-foot bomb that would have gone 450 feet in any other ballpark without the marine layer? Just a suggestion.

Lackey entered our weird Giants world as an unflappable rookie with nerves of titanium. And I thought he was going to leave it as a whiny 6’6" Pez dispenser filled with dried turds instead of delicious candies.

But he’s back. And he’s standing in the way of the Giants again, with a chance to eliminate them. That means it’s probably a good idea to remember what Lackey is, how he pitches, and how the Giants have done against him.

Every Giants game vs. John Lackey since 2010

While it’s tempting to include 2002 and beyond, it’s not like we’re going to glean any information from how Lackey approached David Bell. We’ll use 2010 and beyond because it will give us at least some semblance of how the current team might do. Call it the Posey Era.

This works well because in 2009, Lackey struck out 10 batters in a seven-inning start against the Giants, reminding us all not only that the Giants didn’t win the 2002 World Series, but that they would never win a World Series again. I’d prefer not to go down that dark path again.

Here are all the Lackey v. Giants starts since 2010:

Game 3, 2014 NLCS - 6 IP, 4 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 3 SO
Sept. 4, 2016 - 5 IP, 1 ER, 1 H, 1 BB, 4 SO

That’s it. The September start was truncated because he had just come off the DL with a right shoulder strain. So we have 11 innings spread over two years as our evidence that the Giants do/don’t hit Lackey. Which is almost entirely useless.

How Lackey pitches

Ah, this should be more instructive. His pitch breakdown for this year, according to PITCHf/x:

Fastball: 58%
Cutter/slider: 23%
Curveball: 13%
Changeup: 5%

You’ll notice that adds up to 99 percent. The extra percent is when Lackey’s mouthbreathing interfered with the PITCHf/x equipment. True story.

So we have a pitcher who relies on movement and location, mostly, which is the kind of pitcher who gives the Giants fits. He throws more first-pitch strikes than the average pitcher (by nearly eight percent), which can be brutal for a team that prefers to be a little patient, like the Giants.

Pitchers who are also tough against the Giants: Wild, erratic rookies, knuckleballers, lefties, righties, relievers, starters, veterans, 31-year-olds, 41-year-olds, 21-year-olds, hard throwers, and finesse pitchers. Also, all of the pitchers who don’t fit any of those descriptions.

Really, though, if you’re going to pick a type of pitcher the Giants might jump all over, it would be someone like Lackey who ...

  • Has good stuff, but not dominant swing-through stuff
  • Fills up the strike zone
  • Is right-handed
  • Is an orc

And I would expect the Giants to be aggressive early in the count, not waiting around to see if Lackey backs himself into hitter’s counts, which he probably won’t.

The key is if the Giants can make loud contact on those pitches in the strike zone. It’s here where I make some sort of pithy joke about the Giants’ inability to make loud contact, except they did just that against Jake Arrieta. A lot of the hard-hit balls found gloves, or they were sucked into the vortex of AT&T’s cavernous outfield.

So more of that, just with better luck would be the plan, then. Unless they want to go full ground attack and make Lackey stomp around like a ‘80s high school movie villain who had the tables turned against him in the third act.

My original description from 2014 still holds up:

Voted "Most Likely To Stare At You With His Mouth Open" by the Abilene High class of '96, John Lackey looks like someone whose next spoken word is eternally likely to be "butts." There doesn't need to be context for him saying "butts." You could be asking him for directions and, after several blinking moments, he is still likely to say "butts," slowly and without a trace of humor or irony. It's just looks like that's the word on his mind at all times.

And, really, I don’t like the guy one bit. He’s an older, meatier Mat Latos, and it would feel especially bad for him to end the Giants’ season.

Which means it would be especially delightful for him to allow the Giants’ season to continue. There shouldn’t be a lot of surprises from him tonight. He’ll live on the corners, teasing the hitters with cutter-sliders that break just out of the zone, while throwing good strikes in the zone. The Giants will have to be ready for the pitches that catch too much of the middle. This is true for every pitcher, mind you, but it’s especially true for a high-contact team like the Giants against a strike-thrower like Lackey.

The Giants v. John Lackey: The final battle. They have one. He has one. And this game decides if the Giants get Johnny Cueto in a Game 5, or if they’re cleaning out their lockers and signing each other’s yearbooks.

I’m not nervous. You’re nervous.