Our MLB Network Radio tour takes me to all 15 spring camps in Florida, so I figured I’d jot down some thoughts along the way. Sort of a Journal, if you will. We start in Red Sox camp…
In 2010, Jon Lester was a serious candidate for the Cy Young award. Just 26, the left-hander fanned 225 hitters, led the league in K/9, and seemed on the verge of greatness. But something happened to Lester on the way to annual domination.
The culprit in the eyes of many was an increased reliance on his cut fastball. Orioles GM Dan Duquette caused a stir last summer when he explained that his organization doesn’t like the cutter because it feels that the manipulation of the fastball to increase movement reduces arm strength. His cousin Jim, my co-host on MLB Network Radio and the former GM of both the Orioles and the Mets, holds to the same theory and has singled out Lester as an example.
While it’s true that Lester has relied more on his cutter over the last two seasons, the velocity on his four-seam fastball hasn’t fallen dramatically (an average of 94.3 miles per hour in 2010 and 93.6 mph last year). The loss of less than a mile an hour could be a result of using the cutter, but it could also be attributable to the normal wear and tear experienced by all pitchers.
At the same time, Lester’s cutter velocity has increased to the point that it sat, on average, just a tick more than two mph slower than his four-seamer last year. While the small speed disparity between the two could be seen as a positive (hitters have a tougher time determining the difference between the two the closer they are in speed), Lester suffered through his worst season as a starter last year. In all likelihood, with Lester, as with most pitchers, the bigger issue is one of location.
One of the concerns scouts and player development officials have with pitchers who use their cutter frequently is that they have a tendency to “get around the baseball”, trying to manipulate the ball to give it that extra movement instead of staying on top of their pitches, which leads to natural life.
Lester’s former pitching coach and new manager John Farrell told us on MLB Network Radio that he understands that tendency. “I think what we saw with Jon was his [back leg started to collapse during his delivery],” Farrell said. “He started to push the ball and lost his downward angle through the strike zone particularly with commanding his fastball away to a right-hander. But the thing it did to his cutter is add length to it. He got much less swing-and-miss to the pitch.”
From 2011 to 2012, Lester’s rate of swings-and-misses on cutters dropped by two percentage points, from 15.4 percent to 13.4 percent. Data from brooksbaseball.net seems to indicate that Lester’s arm slot dropped by approximately three inches last year. Additionally, there was similar variation on the horizontal movement of both pitches, potentially impacting his command and leading to an ERA approaching 5.00.
So maybe Lester’s arm strength has affected his life and movement, not his velocity? It’s possible. While Lester still gets more whiffs per swing than league average on his cutter, his four-seam fastball has been getting hit more. His percentage of whiffs per swing on the pitch has dropped, while his ISO against right-handed hitters has nearly doubled since 2010 (.172 in 2010 to .336 last season)
The flattening of Lester's four-seamer is something catcher David Ross said he noticed as well. “He’s working on fastball location so far. I think he was getting a little underneath the ball. And when that ball flattens out, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw, you’re showing it to the hitter really early.”
None of this evidence is definitive proof that Lester’s fastball is being affected by his cutter use, but it does bear watching. Lester told us this offseason that he went through a series of mechanical adjustments throughout the second half of last year. While he wouldn’t specify what exactly he had worked on, he did say one focus was on timing the cut fastball to “backdoor” it to right-handed hitters. Better command and crisper movement could be the result of his effort to get “on top of” the ball more.
Farrell sees a light at the end of the tunnel for Lester. “I think what he’s been able to incorporate early has put those pieces back into place and that’s what leads us to such an encouraging point this early in camp to say that he looks like he’s back on track to the strong years he’s had.”
The question that may need to be answered at a later date, if Lester’s struggles are a result of the cutter use, is, “Is he alone?” Or is this a common mechanical flaw for pitchers who “fall in love with the pitch”?
Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research assistance. All quotes courtesy of SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio Spring Tour.