August 11, 2006
Red Sox, Cardinals
Jon Lester has pitched well for a 22-year old in his rookie season, with an above average strikeout rate and a modest number of home runs allowed. His presence in the Boston rotation has helped ease the various injury troubles beset upon it this year, but like every non-Curt Schilling starter Boston has put on the mound in 2006, Lester is walking a tightrope act.
His walk rates--rates that were high to begin with--rocketed to almost five walks per nine innings pitched upon his promotion to Pawtucket. Lester issued free passes to 25 batters in 46 innings, but managed to keep his ERA a shiny 2.70. With the David Pauley-as-major-league-starter experiment in the midst of failing at the same time Matt Clement's pitching woes were at their worst, the Sox had no choice but to call Lester into action.
His statistics in the majors are in line with his 2006 minor league numbers for the most part. His K/9 fell a whole strikeout, and his HR/9 dropped all the way down to 0.58. His walk rate remains problematic: after posting a 4.82 BB/9 in 46.2 innings at Pawtucket, Lester has struggled with walking batters in the majors at a 4.81/9 innings clip.
At first, Lester was able to get out of the many jams he walked himself into, and his ERA was unscathed. Through his first eight starts, the bases were loaded against Lester on eight separate occasions; batters only managed a line of .000/.083/.000, although there were also three sacrifice flies involved. Lester was shutting down opponents with runners in scoring position as well, only allowing a .171/.312/.200 line. The past few starts have shown us the opposite end of the potential outcomes, with opposing batters crushing the ball at a .321/.371/.536 rate. He has also struggled against left-handed hitters this year--.333/.388/.524 in the majors, although in only 33 at-bats--which is odd, considering he's also a southpaw.
The walks have troublesome enough that Lester and the Red Sox lost to the Royals this past Tuesday, with Lester handing out three unintentional walks and one hit batsmen. Manager Terry Francona has mentioned on multiple occasions in the past few weeks that Lester is trying too hard to be perfect and manage his walks, and it's making him infinitely easier to hit; considering the situational numbers have shifted out of favor with Lester at the same time his strikeout rates have fallen over the past few starts--from 7.96/9 in his first seven starts down to 5.35/9 the last five--that's entirely plausible.
Lester has had flashes of brilliance on the mound this season, with seemingly unhittable breaking pitches mixed in with a low-to-mid 90s fastball with movement. In between these flashes are bouts of poor control and pitches that miss their spots. Watching the change come over Lester the past few starts and listening to Francona speak about his future stud, one wonders if Lester is better off challenging hitters and letting his control work itself out with time, rather than experimenting mid-game with potentially hittable pitches.
If he gets his tendency to walk batters under control--he's hit five with pitches and had four wild pitches to go along with his 34 unintentional passes-- then he should turn out to be a fine #1 or #2 starting pitcher in the Red Sox rotation. Lester is still only 22, and he's spent more time on a major league roster than a Triple-A one. Calling him up before he was ready was something the Red Sox most likely would have avoided if possible--and they tried, bringing up the struggling David Pauley first--but with the injuries and a double header scheduled for his first weekend in the majors, Lester was thrown to the wolves. Now the Sox have a starter attempting to learn on the job at the same time he's being counted on to help in a pennant race, and it has not been appeasing to fans every time out. Lester has shown he can succeed in the majors, but he is not quite the ace many may have thought he was upon arrival; slap the "potential ace" nametag back on Lester where it belongs until his peripherals sort themselves out.
In each of the past two seasons, the Cardinals have won 100 games and cruised to victory in the N.L. central by a double-digit margin. They won't do the same this year, as a St. Louis team with an aging core has struggled along with the rest of the weak N.L. Despite having undergone eight game losing streaks on two separate occasions, St. Louis still holds a 3.5 game lead on the Reds. The Cards are the second best lock to make the playoffs in the N.L. despite being on pace to win just 88 games, and they have only gotten to that point thanks to some unexpectedly strong contributions from a pair of rookies.
Adam Wainwright: The Braves' top pitching prospect for several years, Wainwright was shipped to St. Louis in December of 2003 with Jason Marquis and Ray King for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero. He thrived in the Braves chain of pitchers' parks, putting up a 3.4 K/BB ratio and allowed just half a homer per nine innings at five different stops from 2000-03, which earned him nods on both the 2003 and 2004 BP prospect lists. However, there was the usual concern about the Braves knowing something that no one else did. "If you want to know who's the real deal and who's just a pretender," BP wrote in the 2003 annual of Atlanta's crop of young arms, "just wait and see which pitchers the Braves keep and which they trade away." Sure enough, Wainwright's first year in St. Louis was marred by elbow trouble, and he managed just 63.7 sub-par innings for Triple-A Memphis. Last year he stayed healthy enough to make 29 starts and throw 182 innings, but a 4.40 ERA in one of the PCL's pitchers' parks was less encouraging.
With no room in the rotation in the spring, the Cardinals decided to make Wainwright the long man out of the bullpen rather than have him continue starting at Memphis. The move has worked out well, as Wainwright leads the N.L. in Adjusted Runs Prevented from scoring, with 18.3. (The top eight relievers by ARP all reside in the junior circuit, another example of the A.L.'s superiority this year.) His history as a starter has allowed Wainwright to throw more than an inning in 17 of his 45 relief appearances. Wainwright's fastball, which he used to throw in the high 80's, now comes in several low 90's flavors, with good movement, and can be pumped up to 94-95 at times. His best pitch, however, might be his hard breaking overhand curveball, an effective out pitch which Wainwright has used to fan 54 in 60 relief innings. Wainwright hasn't been able to keep lefties in check, however, as his split stats show:
Split IP H HR BB SO ----------------------------- vs. Right 39.7 23 1 7 27 vs. Left 20.3 27 5 10 27This problematic trend has been growing over Wainwright's career:
Years Level Split IP HR BB K HR/9 K/BB -------------------------------------------------- 2004-05 AAA vs. Right 148.3 13 42 129 0.79 3.07 2004-05 AAA vs. Left 97.3 17 37 82 1.57 2.22 2001-03 A-AA vs. Right 286.3 13 83 271 0.41 3.27 2001-03 A-AA vs. Left 191.3 12 68 208 0.56 3.06At the lower levels, Wainwright handled lefties only a little less effectively than he did righties. Once he hit Triple-A, however, lefties began launching bombs about twice as often as righties did, and Wainwright's fine control also slipped against them. In the majors this year, the problem has grown worse, as he's allowed lefthanders a .924 OPS against, versus .469 for the righthanders. It will be interesting to see how LaRussa, notorious for his exacting style of bullpen usage, handles Wainwright's imbalance in the playoffs, especially if his best reliever has to face the lefty-heavy lineup of the N.L.-leading Mets. The Cardinals have said that Wainwright will slot into the rotation next year, so he needs to develop an offering that will allow him to stave off southpaws--perhaps refining his changeup, a pitch which has worked well for Aaron Heilman against lefties--and keep opposing managers from stacking the lineup against him. If he doesn't, he may become the Cardinals' version of Bronson Arroyo.
Chris Duncan: Prior to the season, you might have thought the decision to carry Duncan, son of pitching coach Dave Duncan, was a particularly egregious bit of nepotism on LaRussa's part. Duncan, however, has put in his time: after being drafted in the first round way back in 1999, he spent seven years in the minors, to the point where it was beginning to look like his major league career might not ever happen. A switch to the outfield from first base due to the presence of Albert Pujols was the start of good things for Duncan, however, and after a two-homer day in Thursday's win over Cincinnati, Duncan now has ten homers on the year to go with a line of .307/.364/.591 in 151 plate appearances. LaRussa has spotted the 25-year-old lefthanded batter mainly against righties, to great effect. Considering Duncan has only hit .271/.359/.448 with 7 homers in 206 plate appearances in Memphis this year, and that he owned a career minor league line of .261/.339/.413 in 2,871 at bats entering the season, his performance, well above PECOTA's 90th percentile projection, has to be counted as one of the bigger surprises in the N.L. this year. It certainly has been a welcome gift for Cardinals fans, who have been spared of LaRussa's penchant for playing the punchless So Taguchi against righthanders. Duncan's history suggests he isn't the long-term answer for the Cardinals in an outfield corner, but stranger things have happened, especially when you consider that despite PECOTA's pessimism for this year, Duncan's second and third comparables are Derrek Lee and Nick Johnson.