Winner of 188 major-league games despite years of arm problems, John Lackey became only the second rookie to start and win a World Series-clinching game in 2002 with the Anaheim Angels. He won World Series rings with three different teams, the Angels, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs, over his 15-year career.
John Derran Lackey was born in Abilene, Texas, to Derran and Sharon Lackey on October 23, 1978. (In 2016, Derran Lackey was listed as a teacher/coach at Mesquite Independent School District in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.) John attended Abilene High School and lettered in football, basketball, and baseball. In baseball, he was a two-time first-team All-District honoree, and as a senior, he was an All-State selection.
At the University of Texas at Arlington, Lackey played one season of baseball, usually at first base, but sometimes as a reliever. The first summer after attending UTA, he pitched in the Kansas Jayhawk Summer League. In 1999, while attending Grayson County College in Denison, Texas, Lackey played on the school’s Junior College World Series championship team, which went 50-13. In 100 innings pitched, he posted a 10-3 record and a 4.23 ERA. He also excelled at the plate, batting .428 with 15 home runs and 81 runs batted in. In the Junior College World Series, he had eight hits, two of them homers, and seven RBIs.
Lackey was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the second round (68th overall) of the June 1999 free-agent draft. His professional career began with the Boise Hawks (short-season Class-A Northwest League), where he had a 6-2 record and a 4.98 ERA. He was known for his competitiveness. Tom Kotchman, the veteran manager, recalled “one particular game when he tried to replace Lackey only to have the tall Texan tell him otherwise. Sure enough, Kotchman trotted back to the dugout, and Lackey kept dominating.”1
Lackey quickly ascended through the minor leagues. After a 6-2 season with Boise (Northwest League) in 1999, he posted a combined 15-9 record with a 3.15 ERA in 2000 with Cedar Rapids (Class-A Midwest League), Lake Elsinore (Class-A California League), and Erie (Double-A Eastern League), and was chosen as the Angels’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He began 2001 with Arkansas of the Double-A Texas League, and in July was promoted to Triple-A Salt Lake (Pacific Coast League), where he struggled somewhat, posting a 3-4 record and a 6.71 ERA. In 2002 season, however, Lackey went 8-2 with a 2.57 ERA, and was called up by the Angels on June 24. He lost to the Texas Rangers. 3-2, in his first major-league start and was optioned back to Salt Lake, then recalled on June 28. Two days later he replaced Scott Schoeneweis in the Angels’ rotation and defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-1, for his first major-league win. His 9-4 record over the remainder of the season helped make the Angels a wild-card team.
The Angels faced the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. Lackey pitched three scoreless innings of relief in a 9-6 Angels win. He got his first postseason victory in Game Four of the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins, pitching seven scoreless innings and allowing only three hits. The Angels won their first American League pennant, beating the Twins in five games.
The Angels’ opponent in the World Series was the San Francisco Giants. Lackey entered Game Two when starter Kevin Appier was pulled in the third inning. He pitched 2⅓ innings, giving up two runs on two hits in the Angels’ 11-10 victory. He started Game Four and gave up three runs in five innings as the Angels lost, 4-3.
Lackey was the winning pitcher in Game Seven, allowing one run on four hits in five innings. He was only the second rookie in World Series history to start and win a Game Seven. (Babe Adams of the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates was the other.)2
Lackey struggled his second year, posting a 10-16 record with a 4.63 ERA while leading the team in hits and earned runs allowed, strikeouts, and wild pitches. In 2004, he had a record of 14-13 and a 4.67 ERA, and he helped the Angels win their first division title since 1986. Lackey continued to mature during the 2005 season; he worked into the sixth inning in 30 of his 36 starts, had a 14-5 record with a 3.44 ERA, ranked second in the AL in strikeouts per nine innings (8.6) and third in strikeouts (199), but also third in wild pitches.
In 2006 Lackey was 13-11, 3.56. On July 7 he retired 27 consecutive batters after Mark Kotsay of the Oakland Athletics led off the first inning with double. Those nine innings were part of 31⅓ consecutive scoreless innings he pitched from June 26 through July 19. (The streak ended when he gave up a home run to Ben Broussard of the Cleveland Indians.)
On June 13, 2007, Lackey became the first pitcher to win 10 games in the 2007 season.3 He was named to the American League team in the All-Star Game, but did not pitch in the game. Finishing the season with a 19-9 record and a league-best 3.01 ERA, he took third place in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
In 2008 Lackey didn’t pitch for the Angels until May 14 after spending time on the disabled list after straining a triceps muscle in spring training. On July 10 he allowed six runs on 15 hits in 5⅔ innings, tying an Angels franchise record for the most hits allowed by a starter in a game.4
On July 29, pitching against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, Lackey had a no-hitter with one out in the ninth inning. But Dustin Pedroia singled and Kevin Youkilis hit a two-run homer. Lackey finished the game, and the Angels won, 6-2.
Lackey began the 2009 season on the disabled list with tightness in his pitching forearm.5 On May 16, in his first start of the season, against the Texas Rangers, Lackey was ejected after throwing only two pitches. His first pitch was behind Ian Kinsler’s head, and he hit Kinsler in the side with his second pitch and was ejected by home-plate umpire Bob Davidson. (Kinsler had hit two home runs against the Angels the night before.)
Lackey got a no-decision in that game and ended the season 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA. The Angels made the postseason again and in Game One of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox, Lackey defeated Lester, 3-0, as the Angels swept the series in three games. Lackey lost one game and got a no-decision in another as the New York Yankees defeated the Angels in six games in the Championship Series,
A free agent after the 2009 season, Lackey was widely regarded as the best starting pitcher on the market. Baseball Prospectus declared: “Lackey stands alone as the best of the best, a relatively young righty who carries significantly less risk than the other high-upside hurlers.” The writer noted that Lackey faced a tough division and tougher league and that his statistics would likely have been better if he were a National League pitcher.6 It was predicted that he would receive a deal of about $70 million to $80 million. He drew interest from many teams. The Angels pursued Lackey aggressively but hesitated to offer a five-year deal because of the elbow injuries that had sidelined him for the first six weeks of the 2008 and 2009 seasons.7
Lackey is known for his fierce competitiveness. In a radio interview in November 2009, Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of him, “John Lackey is one of the best. Every year, there are a couple of guys that seems like they can sway the fortunes of an organization. I think he’s that type of pitcher.”8
On December 14 Lackey signed a five-year contract worth $82.5 million with the Red Sox. The contract included a clause that if he missed a full season due to injury, the Red Sox would have a team option at the end of the contract worth the league minimum.9 On April 7, 2010, he made his debut for Boston at Fenway Park against the Yankees, pitching six innings of three-hit, shutout ball. After a 10-5 record and a 4.26 ERA during the first half of the season, Lackey finished with a 14-11 record, a 4.40 ERA, and 215 innings pitched.
In his first seven starts in 2011, Lackey went 2-5 with an 8.01 ERA. In May he was placed on the disabled list with tightness in his right elbow.10 After returning to the rotation, Lackey finished the season 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA and 1.62 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), both career worsts. His 114 earned runs allowed were the worst in the American League, and his ERA set a new high mark for the Red Sox for a starter with at least 150 innings pitched. Near the end of the season, Lackey and starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Jon Lester were at the center of a controversy after the disclosure that the three (and sometimes others) drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games in which they were not pitching.11 The Red Sox’ precipitous slide toward the end of the season cost manager Francona his job.
General manager Ben Cherington was reluctant to cast too much blame on the pitcher for the team’s disastrous 2011 season. “John Lackey pitched through circumstances this year that I don’t think any of us can fully understand, and he got beat up for it a little bit,” Cherington said. “This guy was dealing with stuff both on the field and off the field that were very difficult, and he showed tremendous toughness pitching through that.” (In addition to his problems on the field and in the clubhouse, Lackey and his wife, who was battling breast cancer, filed for divorce.)12
On November 1 Lackey underwent Tommy John surgery. (He was the third Red Sox pitcher to have the surgery in 2011, following lefty reliever Rich Hill and starter Daisuke Matsuzaka.) He did not pitch for the entire 2012 season. He was later seen drinking beer in the clubhouse during his rehabilitation, causing further controversy.13
The Tommy John surgery, technically known as ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery, was first performed by Dr. Frank Jobe on Tommy John in 1974. Jobe took part of a ligament from elsewhere in the body and used it to reattach the torn one in the pitcher’s elbow. The surgery was followed by months of rehabilitation.
If the rehab – building up strength in every area around the elbow – is successful, when the elbow heals itself enough to start throwing again, the rest of the arm should be strong. Lackey and others who have undergone the procedure feel that their shoulder got stronger than ever.14
On April 6, 2013, Lackey injured his arm in his first start since September 2011. In the fifth inning, he tossed an errant pitch, then immediately grabbed his arm, jumping around the mound in pain.15 The Red Sox announced it was a right biceps strain.16
As the 2013 season progressed, Lackey’s biceps muscle healed, and his elbow started to feel the way it used to. “The arm strength was coming,” Lackey said. “It was coming out of my hand like I remembered it. And I could definitely feel the difference.”17
Major-league hitters noticed the difference, too. Lackey, at 35, was still one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the majors. He threw a fastball as often as 90 percent of the time in some games, putting it in the strike zone about 70 percent of the time. Lackey’s four-seamer was averaging 92 mph, 3 mph faster than he had thrown in 2004, when he was 23. One could question how long it could last, considering that Lackey had thrown more than 2,000 career innings.
“I’m going to chuck it as hard and fast as I can until it breaks again,” he said. “And then we’ll call it a day.”18
Despite a lackluster 10-13 season, Lackey contributed to the Red Sox, particularly at midseason when Clay Buchholz went on the disabled list and Jon Lester was going through a rough stretch.19 Lackey had a 3.52 ERA and was plagued by a lack of run support throughout the season, He pitched two complete games – the first time he had multiple complete games in a season since 2008.
Lackey was much better in the postseason. He beat Detroit’s David Price in the Division Series and Justin Verlander in the ALCS. He pitched a pivotal eighth inning of relief in Game Four of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, one he all but begged his manager to let him throw. Fans who loathed Lackey the year before were chanting, “Lackey, Lackey, Lackey” as he pitched in the seventh inning of Game Six on October 30.20
When manager John Farrell came to the mound with two outs in the seventh inning, Lackey refused to leave the game, telling Farrell, “This is my guy” (referring to the next batter, Matt Holliday). Farrell allowed Lackey to stay in the game, and he walked Holliday to load the bases. Lackey exited to a standing ovation from the fans at Fenway Park. The Red Sox won the game and the Series, 6-1. Lackey became the first major-league starting pitcher to win World Series-clinching games with two different teams.21 In his four 2013 postseason starts, he was 3-1 and in his five appearances, he recorded a 2.77 ERA.
After Game Six, Farrell said of Lackey, “His turnaround mirrored the organization, no question. … It was fitting that he was on the mound tonight.”22
After the season, Lackey received the Tony Conigliaro Award, an award given annually to the major-league player “who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage that were trademarks of Tony C.”
In an interview in June 2014, teammate Clay Buchholz praised Lackey for his decision to have Tommy John surgery and undergo the rehab process. “He knew he was pitching with a broken arm,” Buchholz said. “He fought and got through about 2½, 3 years of doing that. I think he knew the right thing to do was to have the surgery and put in the time and the work to get back to where he’s familiar with being. And as big of a competitor is he is, that’s really the only way he was going to do it.”23
Lackey began the 2014 season as the Red Sox’ number-two starter behind Lester. He made six starts in April, four of them quality starts and two in which he gave up six runs in less than six innings. By the end of July, he’d started 21 games, pitched 137⅓ innings with 116 strikeouts, and had an 11-7 record and a 3.60 ERA.
On July 31 the Red Sox traded Lackey and minor-league pitcher Corey Littrell to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Allen Craig and pitcher Joe Kelly.24 In his Cardinals debut on August 3 against the Brewers, Lackey pitched seven innings, but St. Louis trailed 2-0 when he left the game. His teammates rallied for three runs in the bottom of the inning and won the game 3-2, crediting him with the win, the 150th of his career. Lackey, who wore uniform number 41 during his tenure with Anaheim and Boston, acquired the number from new teammate Pat Neshek in exchange for an autographed Babe Ruth baseball.25
Lackey made 10 regular-season starts for the Cardinals in 2014 and allowed two or fewer runs in seven of them. He finished the season with three wins and three loses, 60⅔ innings pitched, and a 4.30 ERA. His totals for the 2014 season with both of his teams were a 14-10 record, a 3.82 ERA, and 164 strikeouts in 198 innings. He made the postseason for the seventh time in his career, starting once each against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, a 3-1 victory, and the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, a 5-4 loss. The Giants defeated the Cardinals in five games, ending their season.
Many people expected Lackey to retire to avoid being paid the league minimum, in accordance with his December 2009 contract, although he had told the Cardinals before he was dealt to them that he would honor the contract. On October 30 the Cardinals announced they had picked up the option.26 With a guaranteed base salary of $507,000, the club added performance bonuses.27
In 7⅔ innings against the Chicago Cubs on May 7, 2015, Lackey struck out 10 in a 5-1 win. He also drove in his third career run with a double, his third career extra-base hit. On July 12, despite the Cardinals losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-5 in 14 innings, Lackey had his sixth consecutive quality start (three earned runs or fewer in at least seven innings), and his 12th in his most recent 15 appearances. He lost to the Cincinnati Reds on July 29, but gave up just one run with eight strikeouts while allowing one walk and two hits. It was the fewest hits he had allowed that season. He had given up three runs or less in all but one of his 17 prior starts.
When he pitched seven scoreless innings against the Milwaukee Brewers on September 17, Lackey reached 200 innings pitched for the sixth time in his career and for the first time since 2010. He had a career-best 2.77 ERA and 218 innings pitched, his highest total since 2010. His average fastball speed for the 2014 season was 91.6 miles per hour, his highest since 2009.28 Also, 2015 was the 12th consecutive year in which he’d played (not including 2012), in which he won at least 10 games.
The Cardinals won 100 games and the National League Central Division crown in 2015, and made Lackey the Game One starter of the NLDS against the Cubs. He opposed Jon Lester, with whom he had faced the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series when they were teammates with the Red Sox. Lackey held the Cubs hitless through the first five innings and pitched 7⅓ innings in a 4-0 win. For Game Four, the elimination game, the Cardinals started Lackey on three days’ rest. He gave up a three-run homer to Javier Báez, It was the first home run Lackey had tossed in the playoffs since 2008, a span of 77⅔ innings. The Cubs won the game and the series, ending the Cardinals’ season.
In a game against the Cardinals on April 18, 2016, Lackey earned his third win of the season by striking out 11 in seven innings. It was his first regular-season win against St. Louis, and with it he became the 16th player to defeat all 30 major-league teams.29
On September 21, 2016, with a 9-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds, Lackey reached a double-digit win total for his 13th consecutive season. In his 29 starts in 2016, he finished 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA. The Cubs finished the season 103-58 and won the NL Central Division.
Lackey started Game Four of the NLDS at San Francisco, tossing four innings in the Cubs’ 6-5 come-from-behind win that gave them the series. He pitched four innings of Game Four of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which the Cubs won, 10-2. In Game Four of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, he pitched five innings and gave up three runs (two earned), taking the loss in the Indians’ 7-2 win.
When the Cubs beat the Indians in Game Seven, ending the North Siders’ 108-year championship drought, Lackey received his third World Series ring, with a third team. Unlike the previous occasions, he did not pitch the clinching game.
He played for the Cubs in 2017, pitching in 31 games, 30 of which he started, but he was not as successful as in previous years. His win-loss record was 12 and 12, and his ERA was 4.59, almost one-and-a-quarter points higher than the prior year. He pitched 18 fewer innings, gave up 19 more hits and 19 more runs, for a total of 93, and 87 of those runs were earned. He also gave up 36 home runs, leading the major leagues in this category; it was 13 runs more than he gave up in 2016.
His strikeout total had been quite consistent during the past few years: although he threw 29.2 more innings in 2015 than in 2016, he had 175 strikeouts in 2015 and 180 in 2016. In 2017, with 17.1 fewer innings than in 2016, he threw 149 strikeouts. His walk total was remarkable consistent during the last three years of his career: 53 batters each year.
Two other surprising statistics: Lackey hit 12 batters in 2017, compared to 4 in 2015 and 9 in 2016. He also threw 11 wild pitches, compared to five and four the two previous years. Both statistical values had been low since before his Tommy John surgery.
In 2015, Lackey’s last year with the Cardinals, his Base-Out Runs Saved (RE24) value was 29.8, well above the average value of zero. In 2016, his first year with the Cubs, his Base-Out Runs Saved value was 22.0. In 2017, however, it dropped to -6.1, below average.
On August 16, 2017, against the Cincinnati Reds, Lackey successfully recorded his first stolen base, but was picked off shortly thereafter, when he strayed too far from the base.30
During the 2018 season, Lackey was offered a minor-league contract by the Arizona Diamondbacks, which he turned down. After the season concluded, Lackey officially retired.
Last revised: July 6, 2022
1 Brittany Ghiroli, “Path of the Pros: John Lackey: Always Unflappable, the Angels’ Ace Never Wavered in His Winning Ways,” MiLB.com, October 5, 2009. (milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090924&content_id=7138436&vkey=news_milb&fext=.jsp).
2 Baseball’s Best: 2002 World Series, Game 7, MLB.com. (m.mlb.com/video/v5061435/2002-ws-gm7-rookie-lackey-earns-win-in-clincher/?query=2002+world+series+game+7).
3 Associated Press, “Lackey Pitches Streaking Angels Past Reds,” ESPN.com, June 13, 2006.
4 “Angels Hang on for Wild Win Over Rangers,” SportingNews.com, July 10, 2008.
5 The Week That Was in Baseball: March 23-29, 2009. (thisgreatgame.com/comebacker033009.html).
6 Eric Seidman, “So You Need: Starting Pitching,” baseballprospectus.com, November 24, 2009. (baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9799).
8 Ian Browne, “Red Sox Welcoming Cameron, Lackey,” mlb.com, December 16, 2009. (m.redsox.mlb.com/news/article/7814688).
9 Rob Bradford, “John Lackey on Salary Structure for 2015: ‘It’s Going to Be Different,’” WEEI.com, February 28, 2014. (fullcount.weei.com/sports/boston/baseball/red-sox/2014/02/28/john-lackey-on-salary-structure-for-2015-its-going-going-to-be-different/).
10 Steven Krasner, “John Lackey Shelved With Elbow Strain,” ESPN.com, May 17, 2011. (sports.espn.go.com/boston/mlb/news/story?id=6557306). See also Joe McDonald, “John Lackey to Have Elbow Surgery,” ESPN.com, October 26, 2011. (espn.com/boston/mlb/story/_/id/7148697/boston-red-sox-john-lackey-tommy-john-surgery).
11 Ian Browne, “Lester: We Did Drink In Clubhouse During Games,” MLB.com, October 17, 2011. (m.redsox.mlb.com/news/article/25692288//).
13 “Jon Heyman On Gresh & Zo: John Lackey ‘Just a Big Disappointment.’” August 14, 2012, Boston.CBSlocal.com. (boston.cbslocal.com/2012/08/14/jon-heyman-on-gresh-zo-john-lackey-just-a-big-disappointment/).
15 Associated Press, “Red Sox pitcher Lackey Leaves Game Against Blue Jays With Apparent Arm Injury,” CTVnews.ca, April 6, 2013. (ctvnews.ca/sports/red-sox-pitcher-lackey-leaves-game-against-blue-jays-with-apparent-arm-injury-1.1227067/comments-7.385121).
16 Nick Cafardo, “John Lackey Suffers Biceps Strain, Leaves Game,” Boston Globe, April 6, 2013. (boston.com/sports/extra-bases/2013/04/06/lackey_injured).
19 Mike Shalin, “Lackey Sharp as Red Sox Beat Rockies,” Bangor (Maine) Daily News, June 27, 2013. (bangordailynews.com/2013/06/27/sports/professional-sports/pitcher-john-lackey-sharp-as-boston-red-sox-beat-colorado-rockies/).
20 Joel Sherman, “John Lackey Goes From Chump to Champ,” New York Post, October 30, 2013. (nypost.com/2013/10/30/john-lackey-goes-from-chump-to-champ/).
21 Joe McDonald, “Lackey Caps Comeback Season in Style,” ESPN.com, October 31, 2013. . (espn.com/blog/boston/red-sox/post/_/id/33218/lackey-caps-comeback-season-in-style). See also Joel Sherman.
23 Jason Mastrodonato,“John Lackey’s Difficult, but Successful Recovery From Tommy John Surgery and Why He’ll Never Do It Again,” MassLive.com, June 4, 2014. (masslive.com/redsox/index.ssf/2014/06/john_lackeys_difficult_but_suc.html).
24 Ian Browne, “Lackey to Cards as Sox get Kelly, Craig,” MLB.com, July 31, 2014. (m.mlb.com/news/article/87232200/red-sox-trade-john-lackey-for-joe-kelly-allen-craig/).
25 Ted Berg, “John Lackey traded a Babe Ruth Autograph for a Uniform Number,” USA Today, August 20, 2014. (ftw.usatoday.com/2014/08/john-lackey-pat-neshek-uniform-number-babe-ruth-st-louis-cardinals).
26 Molly Geary, “Cardinals Exercise 2015 Option on Veteran Pitcher John Lackey,” Sports Illustrated, October 30, 2014. (si.com/mlb/2014/10/30/cardinals-pick-2015-option-john-lackey).
27 Derrick Goold, “Offense Backs Lackey as Cards Sweep,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 2015. (stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/offense-backs-lackey-as-cards-sweep/article_263a16f4-1ff5-50d5-9245-3ee371c41f0b.html).
28 Zach Rymer, “John Lackey Showcases Late-Career Renaissance With Dazzling NLDS gem,” Bleacher Report, October 9, 2015. (bleacherreport.com/articles/2577700-john-lackey-showcases-late-career-renaissance-with-dazzling-nlds-gem).
29 Carrie Muskat, “John Lackey Beats Cardinals in First Matchup.” MLB.com, April 19, 2016. (m.mlb.com/news/article/173145090/john-lackey-beats-cardinals-in-first-matchup/). Besides Lackey, the other pitchers who have defeated all 30 major-league teams are Al Leiter, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Barry Zito, Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Woody Williams, Jamie Moyer, Javier Vazquez, Vicente Padilla, Derek Lowe, Dan Haren, A.J. Burnett, Kyle Lohse, and Tim Hudson,
30 Andrew Mearns and Carrie Muskat, “John Lackey Stole the First Base of His Career…and then Got Picked Off, August 17, 2017. (https://www.mlb.com/cut4/john-lackey-steals-first-base-of-career-and-then-gets-picked-off-c248920640).