The Angels have had some great pitchers in their time. Many have never had the opportunity to prove their worth on the national stage, instead just spending a large chunk of their career pitching great for the fans down in Orange County and maybe getting an All Star nod as the top possible honor. Decades went by at times where the Angels were an afterthought no matter how dominant the man on the mound was.
But when the Angels were faced with the biggest game in their history – Game Seven of the World Series, one man stepped up to the challenge. A rookie who had gone to community college in the same Texas county where Gene Autry was born rose to the occasion. It didn’t happen with the lightning speed of the big hits in the two three-run innings late in Game 6 that extended the series, but the focused, intense five-innings of four-hit, one-walk, one-run, four-strikeout pitching was something that was basically missing from Halo history. You might see it lots during the regular season but there was that one time that one guy did it when we needed it done and his name was John Lackey.
Then, for an encore, he evolved over the next two seasons into the workhorse who would become the ace of the pitching staff for five great seasons. After a mediocre 2003 and ’04 something clicked with Lackey. The bite to his “Slurve” (his out pitch that combined the best breaking aspects of a slider and a curve) became more impenetrable to hitters. He had fewer and fewer “Lackey Innings”, those interruptions of mowing down a lineup to surrender 3-5 runs. Oops, sorry coach…
In 2005 his ERA+ rocketed to 123 (up from 95 in 2004) as he had a career high 199 strikeouts and perhaps more importantly, 0.6 Home Runs surrendered per 9 Innings Pitched. 2006 was a little bit better and 2007 was by far Lackey’s greatest season. His ERA+ boomed to 150, and his ERA just squeaked over to 3.01 as he went 19-9 and got the Angels back to winning the west. They did so in four of his five peak seasons.
Lackey was legend – From that Game 7 start to standing on the mound with Torii Hunter holding Nick Adenhart’s jersey… he was our guy. Telling plate-crowding Oakland doofus in body armor Jason Kendall to “stick that thing out there” (that thing being his elbow hovering over half the plate); benches cleared and Lackey got some great swings in before it was all said and done. When he faced Oakland in Oakland a few years later he gave up a leadoff double and then pitched a perfect game – 27 straight outs. Legend.
His 24.8 career Wins Above Replacement ranks sixth among Angels pitchers. His 102 Wins is tied for fifth with Frank Tanana. His K/9 of 7.2 is in the club’s all time top ten as are his 1,201 strikeouts, his 233 starts and his 116 ERA+.
When he left the team in free agency, signing with the Boston Red Sox created a rift with Angels fans who had seen too many playoff defeats at the hands of the Chowdz to forgive him. To add to the misery, Lackey badmouthed Anaheim fans to the Boston media and went on to win a ring with them in 2013. He also pitched for the Cubs when they won the 2016 World Series – three rings with three teams that at the dawn of the century were considered “cursed” from ever being able to win a championship.
But John Lackey is inseparable from the story of the Angels franchise even though he sure went out of his way to tarnish his own reputation via that slackjawed big mouth. Regardless, he was the best starting pitcher on the team for the key years (2002 – ’09) of the Golden Decade, no debate there – and that is a legacy that puts him high on this list, as do those stellar five innings on October 27, 2002 when we hardly knew him but needed him the most.