There was a time when John Lamb was expected to be among the young starters that would make up the front end of the Royals rotation. In fact, Lamb impressed enough to be ranked as the 18th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season, coming off a year where he was 10-7 with a 2.38 ERA combined over three stops in 2010. Along side other top pitching prospects such as Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, the future for the Royals rotation appeared bright.
Then, disaster struck. After eight solid starts for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Lamb underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2011. Montgomery suddenly lost his ability to pitch, and was shipped off to Tampa Bay as part of the trade for James Shields. Duffy underwent Tommy John surgery of his own the following year, and that bright future appeared to be nothing more than a mirage.
While Duffy has managed to come back from his surgery successfully and may be able to once again be a part of the Royals future in the rotation, John Lamb has not looked like the pitcher that he was prior to 2011. It is one thing to struggle coming back from surgery as Lamb did, as he was 0-1 with a 6.92 ERA in six appearances in 2012. Yet, his 2013 season may have been worse. Lamb was a combined 5-14 with a 5.80 ERA. Even more concerning was his strikeout rate. Typically above a strikeout per inning over his career, Lamb only struck out just over seven batters per nine. That rate decreased even more dramatically in his three outings for Omaha, where he had only ten strikeouts in sixteen innings.
The biggest factor for Lamb’s ineffectiveness may be due to a dramatic dropoff in velocity since undergoing surgery. In 2010, Lamb was routinely in the mid 90’s with his fastball; last season, Lamb had lost approximately ten miles per hour on the fourseamer, averaging just under 87 MPH last season. While he still had excellent separation in speed between the fastball and his changeup with a 15 MPH difference, Lamb just does not seem to have the ability to blow people away if needed any longer.
Once thought to be a pitcher that could be a potential second or third starter, Lamb appears to be a back of the rotation piece at best at this point. He is likely going to have to learn how to pitch, to get by on an ability to confuse hitters instead of stuff alone. The Royals loved his competitiveness and ability to get by without his best stuff, but can Lamb essentially become an entirely different pitcher? Can he get by on keeping the ball down in the zone, attempting to generate ground ball after ground ball?
That ability to adjust is likely to be the biggest key to John Lamb’s future. If he can start getting outs by mixing pitches and keeping the ball down, he could possibly carve out a career as a crafty lefty starter in the back of a rotation. Otherwise, Lamb may be just another tale of what could have been.