Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/14/11

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein was right when he said that no single person should receive the blame for his team’s September collapse — but it’s hard to ignore John Lackey’s role in the epic failure.

Signed to be a well-paid, innings-eating third starter, Lackey’s 2011 was nothing short of a disaster. His 160 IP was his lowest since his rookie season in 2002; and while his FIP (4.71) was better than his ERA (6.41), both were career highs. Needless to say this isn’t what the Red Sox expected from a guy getting $15.25 million a year.

So what went wrong with Lackey this year? We can’t know for sure. Pitch F/X data show some decline in movement, but velocity levels are consistent with previous seasons. His personal struggles are unlikely to have made it easy for him to pitch, and his antics on the mound did nothing to make his teammates want to run through walls to make plays behind him. While all of these are plausible explanations, what if the true culprit is his contract?

The length and dollars of his contract drew the most scrutiny at the time of his signing, but it’s possible that a provision that drew less attention at the time of his signing is to blame for his struggles. The contract says that if Lackey has an elbow injury that requires him to miss “significant” time, he’s required to pitch the sixth year of the contract at the MLB minimum. While the new salary would put him in the top 2% of U.S. incomes, it would make him a relative pauper among MLB starting pitchers — when matched with his time in the majors. Obviously, the point of including the provision in his contact was to “incentivize” Lackey to remain healthy — and to provide a hedge for the Red Sox if he doesn’t.

On the surface, this appears to make sense. A fundamental law of economics is that people respond to incentives. There’s little doubt that a contract provision forcing someone to work at more than $10 million below their market value will warrant their attention. However, this is exactly the wrong kind of incentive structure.

For an incentive to be truly effective, it must be targeted at outcomes the player can control. The Red Sox have shown they understand this, as they once put a clause in Curt Schilling’s contract that incentivized him to show up weighing less than the Citgo sign. Future Red Sox signees might find themselves being rewarded for forgoing a trip to the Cask ‘n Flagon for a beer during games — or for channeling a Christian version of Pedro Cerrano to explain the team’s failures — but they shouldn’t  have incentives that reward them for not blowing out their elbows.

First, there’s no evidence to suggest that pitchers can control whether or not they suffer a major elbow injury. Second, by making it costly for Lackey to succumb to an elbow injury, the Red Sox have increased the likelihood that Lackey will attempt to pitch through an injury — which likely would render Lackey ineffective or could lead to another injury in his effort to protect his golden elbow. None of these potential outcomes correspond to what the Red Sox really want from Lackey, which is effective innings pitched.

The Red Sox are typically lauded — justifiably — for the quality of decision-making within their organization, but Lackey’s unique contract is shaping up to be a clunker. A high-payroll team with a deep-pocketed owner can manage having an expensive player on the shelf with an injury. What the franchise can’t afford is a pitcher of Lackey’s 2011 vintage taking regular turns in the rotation if it hopes to return to postseason anytime soon.

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