Wednesday night, in Game 1 of the World Series, Jon Lester was good. The Cardinals’ hitters, in turn, were not, or at least their performance was not, and as a consequence, the Cardinals lost. The Red Sox are now ahead by a game, and the Cardinals have as long as possible to wait for the next start by Adam Wainwright.
That’s the story, basically. It’s not the story that’s going to get all of the physical and electronic ink — the Cardinals’ defense, early on, was atrocious, and Wainwright gave up a few solid hits, and Carlos Beltran got hurt robbing a grand slam, and David Ortiz subsequently got his home run anyway to pour gravy all over the blowout. There’s a lot that’ll be written about what went wrong for St. Louis early. There’s a lot that’ll be written about the implications of Beltran being injured. But the Cardinals didn’t score a run until Ryan Dempster hung a splitter in the top of the ninth. With some luck, this game could’ve been closer. With some luck, this game could’ve been even more lopsided. Against Lester, the Cardinals just weren’t going to win without a miracle.
I’m going to let you in on some trade secrets. They’re not really that secret, or juicy. When a pitcher has a start like Lester’s on a big stage, the start gets written about. And from an analytical perspective, you’re always looking for an explanation. How did the start come together? What were the pitcher’s strengths? What did the pitcher do differently? In short, in what sense was the start unusual? What was the key to the dominance?
Here’s the story for Jon Lester in Game 1, as far as I can tell after thorough investigation: he was good. He pitched like Jon Lester — he pitched like himself — and maybe he made fewer mistakes. His strengths were his usual strengths. His mix was similar to his usual mix. The game could’ve looked different given different outcomes in one or two at-bats, but when runners were on, Lester found the right spots to keep the runners from crossing. Jon Lester took a shutout into the eighth because he pitched like Jon Lester when Jon Lester is good.
In large part the game was about Lester’s fastball and cutter, and he was able to use those pitches to control both sides of the zone against hitters of both…handednesses. Some possibly telling pitch-location charts:
What you don’t see are many pitches right in the middle. What you see a lot more of are pitches on the inner and outer thirds, or just beyond them. In the very early going, Lester attempted to establish his fastball inside, and then he folded in his cutter more often and pitched to both sides, especially against righties. Some of the lasting images, for me, are batters getting frozen by third-strike cutters on an edge. Presented are some lower-quality .gifs.
A low-away cutter at 89. A cutter away at 88. A low-away cutter at 88. A low-inside cutter at 87. Between the cutter and the regular fastball, Lester established a consistent velocity difference and a consistent movement difference, and he’d vary his pitches to the edges so that hitters couldn’t be sure which variety of fastball they were getting. In the top of the second, Lester faced a 1-and-1 count against Yadier Molina, and he threw a tailing fastball over the outer third, which Molina fouled off. He followed that with a cutter that started over the outer third, but instead of tailing away off the plate, the cutter stayed where it was and Molina was left frozen and helpless. It’s easy to talk about these things in hindsight, but after a game like this I’m pretty willing to give Lester all the benefits of the doubt.
There were a few other images that stuck with me. In the first, Matt Holliday hit a first-pitch single off a fastball down at the knees. Holliday batted again in the fourth, with a man on. He swung at a cutter, then he took a cutter, then he took a fastball to get ahead 2-and-1. He fouled off a low-away fastball, then he fouled off a high-away fastball. The count at that point was 2-and-2, and Holliday had only seen fastballs and cutters. Of Lester’s 16 two-strikes pitches to that point, all but two had been fastballs or cutters. Of Lester’s 11 two-strike pitches with at least one ball to that point, all 11 had been fastballs or cutters. Holliday had every reason to expect something faster than what he got instead.
That was the only whiff Lester got with his curveball, but he also got seven fouls, a called strike, and a pop-up. Lastly, with this stuff in mind, consider the top of the seventh. David Freese led off, and Lester got ahead with a curve. After a ball, Lester got ahead again with another curve. The fourth pitch was a cutter away, which Freese took for a ball. Freese might then have been expecting something similar, or perhaps another curve. What Lester did instead was bust him inside with a fastball, and Freese took too long a swing. The inning ended with Shane Robinson. Lester got ahead with a perfect outer-edge fastball. He then threw his first changeup of the game, which Robinson swung right through. The third pitch was a low curve that Robinson fouled off. Then Lester threw his second changeup of the game, more outside than the first.
Even at that point in the game, with the score 5-0 and with the Cardinals looking helpless, Lester and David Ross mixed things up. For Shane Robinson, in the top of the seventh, Lester had a weapon he somehow hadn’t yet flashed. The weapon worked. Just about all of his weapons worked. The three strikes he threw to Pete Kozma to lead off the eighth were all different pitches, and they were all right on the edge of the zone. Lester’s last pitch of his outing, to Matt Carpenter, was a cutter that caught a little too much of the plate, but Carpenter still sent up only a routine fly. Maybe he was just surprised to see something hittable, which could be a weapon in its own right.
Absolutely, Lester’s start could’ve looked different. David Freese could’ve done something other than bounce into a 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded. Jon Jay could’ve not grounded out to short in the fifth. But, how did the bases get loaded? Jay took a walk with some borderline balls, and Allen Craig and Yadier Molina hit groundball singles off cutters on the edges. The fifth inning doesn’t get so threatening with a better defensive left fielder than Jonny Gomes. No one’s true-talent level is “shutout”, but Lester deserved a good game Wednesday, and the results followed and then some.
How did Jon Lester shut down the Cardinals in Game 1? He didn’t resort to any tricks. He didn’t do his best, I don’t know, Justin Verlander impression. He did his best Jon Lester impression. He pitched like the Jon Lester people have seen as an ace. He hasn’t consistently been able to pitch at that level, but when he gets there, no one’s able to call it surprising. This is the guy that’s been in there all along.
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