July 24, 2012
On May 14, Jon Lester threw a complete came against the Seattle Mariners, scattering eight hits and allowing just one run on 119 pitches in a 6-1 victory for Boston. The win put Lester’s record at just 2-3 and lowered his ERA to 3.71 as Boston limped through the early part of the season. Since then, Lester’s story has been uglier than the Boston collapse of 2011; his numbers look nothing like the extremely consistent pitcher that fantasy owners came to know and love from 2008 to 2011.
Lester has made 12 starts since that victory over the Mariners and has gone 3-4 with a 6.75 ERA and a 4.60 FIP. In the 69 1/3 innings he has thrown, he has allowed 91 hits, 52 earned runs, 13 home runs, 20 walks, and has struck out 66. In ratio format, that computes to 11.7 hits per nine innings, 1.7 home runs per nine, and a .376 batting average on balls in play. The large gap between his ERA and FIP at least hints that he is doing something good, and he is. His strikeout-to-walk ratio during this time has been a very strong 3.3 on the heels of an 8.6 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9.
Lester’s first inning yesterday sums up the whole situation rather well. The lead-off home run hit by Brett Lawrie highlighted Lester’s charitable ways. He then walked Yunel Escobar, allowed Colby Rasmus to reach third on a bunt single, and then surrendered a ground-rule double to Edwin Encarnacion. An RBI groundout scored Rasmus, and a proceeding double, a dropped strike three, and a sacrifice bunt plated the fourth and fifth runs of the inning. Anything and everything happened in that inning to Lester, as it has throughout this ugly run of 12 starts.
How can he be doing so poorly with such good peripherals? After all, his two most frequent outcomes during this bad run are strikeouts and groundouts:
Data via TexasLeaguers.com
He has had some good starts during this stretch, including one on July 3 in which he allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings, but that is the only time he has allowed fewer than three runs, and he has given up at least four earned runs in seven of the 12 starts.
Normally, a .376 BABIP would lead you to believe that Lester is giving up a lot of line drives, but that is not the case. During this stretch, 43 percent of his batted balls have been fly balls, 39 percent groundballs, and just 18 percent have been line drives. Let’s compare the line drive rates of balls in play for each pitch type from last season to each month of the 2012 season:
In the 2010 season, Lester’s cutter was the toughest in baseball to hit according to Mark Simon’s work from the ESPN Stats & Info Department. That season, opponents had just a .424 OPS off the pitch, which was 21 points lower than the results Mariano Rivera had from his own cutter. Historically, that has been a good pitch for him, but the results from that pitch this year are a clear step backwards:
He is getting fewer swings and misses this season than he has previously, and more of the cutters are being put into play than ever before. This is a problem since he is throwing the pitch more frequently than he did last year, becoming even more reliant on it in recent weeks.
The cut fastball is Lester’s second most preferred pitch when facing right-handed hitters, behind only his four-seam fastball. For his career, he has thrown a four-seam fastball or a cutter 61 percent of the time when facing right-handed hitters. In 3,374 career plate appearances, right-handed hitters have a .253/.328/.385 slash line against the lefty, but this season the results are much different:
Visually, here is how Lester has fared against right-handed hitters for his career versus the 2012 season:
For the season, Lester has lowered that four-seam/cutter mix to a 57 percent mixture against right-handed hitters, but the rate has risen over the last few months. The mixture was 54 percent in May, 59 percent in June, and 60 percent so far in July. Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Lester, rather than changing his recipe against righties, continues to add it to the mixture, which is leading to less fortunate results.
In addition to these issues, Lester has a concerning trend with his declining strikeout rate. While his K/9 is strong during this run, his K% has declined each of the previous four seasons. He had a 27 percent K% in 2009, dropping to 26.1 percent in 2010, 22.8 percent in 2011, and just 19 percent this season.
In summary, there are some redeeming skills for Lester, but just not as many as there were in years past. He still gets run support in bunches and can get wins if he can control his damage, but he must stop this bull-headed trend of attacking righties as he has always done because it is simply not working. Until he does, he will continue to frustrate both Red Sox fans and fantasy owners.