Jon Lester on the Edge Puts Red Sox on the Edge

Without doubt, the worst question asked of Mike Matheny in his postgame press conference Monday night was whether or not he thought David Ortiz deserved the World Series MVP award. That question, presumably, came from a trained and experienced professional journalist, and Matheny responded about exactly as you’d think he would. If it used to be true that there are no stupid questions, then I think we can agree it’s true no longer. Humanity has broken new ground. But with all that said, you figure Ortiz does have the inside track at this point. In this paragraph we’re going to pretend to care about the World Series MVP award. Ortiz presently doesn’t have much in the way of competition, but perhaps some consideration could be given to Koji Uehara, and of course plenty of consideration would deserve to go to Jon Lester. For it’s Lester who has now bested Adam Wainwright twice, including once Monday in St. Louis.

In retrospect, Lester didn’t need to be as good in Game 1 as he was. He did need to be as good as he was in Game 5, and thankfully because he was so good, we don’t need to sit here talking about whether he should’ve batted in the top of the seventh. (No.) We can just focus on Lester’s performance on the mound, and he finished with a run and seven strikeouts over nearly eight innings. Ask the Cardinals and they’ll tell you Lester on Monday was the same as he was before. A few have gone on record saying as much, and twice now the Cardinals haven’t had an answer. But I think it should be pointed out things weren’t completely alike. There were plenty of similarities between Game 1 Lester and Game 5 Lester — Lester himself was genetically identical — but Game 5 Lester featured a couple twists.

We’ll start with some simple images, from Brooks Baseball. They don’t actually look that simple, but they’re totally intuitive. These images are also going to tell you information you already could’ve guessed. Let’s look first at Lester’s whiff rates by pitch location over the PITCHf/x era:

lesterwhiffs

Got it? More whiffs out of the zone. Fewer whiffs in the zone. Makes sense. Not many whiffs at all down the middle. Now let’s look at some slugging percentages allowed:

lesterslugging

Surprise! Lester has been hurt when he’s left pitches over the middle! By far his highest slugging allowed is in the zone middle-middle. His second-highest slugging allowed is in the zone upper-middle. This is what you’d expect of pretty much every pitcher, and those are zones pitchers typically try to avoid.

In Game 1 of the World Series, Lester threw five pitches middle-middle, and another five pitches upper-middle. Those numbers were actually a little higher than his season average, but not significantly. Now, I want you to look at a .gif:

LesterMiddle.gif.opt

Give up on what that is? I’ll give you another moment. Give up on what that is? Here are Lester’s pitch locations from Game 5:

lestergame5

Zero pitches upper-middle, one pitch middle-middle. That one pitch is the pitch you see above, that Carlos Beltran popped up in a 1-and-0 count. Monday night, Jon Lester threw 91 pitches, and only one of them wound up in the zone in which he’s been hurt the most before. The pitch wasn’t supposed to go there, but it’s not like every mistake gets punished — a small minority of mistakes gets punished — and besides, the bases were empty in a two-run game. What was maybe Lester’s worst pitch didn’t burn him, and it was in a forgiving situation for a bad pitch, and there wasn’t much else in the way of bad-pitch competition.

So already we know that Lester was working on the edges. He worked on the edges effectively against Matt Carpenter, who was the only left-handed batter he faced. More can be gleaned from how Lester pitched to righties, since they made up the bulk of things. Look at those Brooks charts. Let’s classify the first two columns as showing inside pitches, and the last two columns as showing outside pitches. The middle is the middle. You’ve got it!

In Game 1, Lester threw 41% of pitches inside to righties, and 47% of pitches outside to righties. One recalls that Lester worked both sides about evenly. In Game 5, Lester threw 55% of pitches inside to righties, and 32% of pitches outside to righties. We can dig deeper into this.

There were some differences with first pitches — Lester threw a higher rate of inside first pitches to righties on Monday. But the real difference is with the fastball. As you’ve learned by now, Jon Lester throws both a regular fastball and a cut fastball, and his cutter is outstanding. In both Game 1 and Game 5, Lester threw 25 cutters to righties, and they went to similar locations. Some of them went in. Some of them looked for the back door. Some of them were low. What Lester did differently was locate his four-seam fastball.

The first game, Lester threw 35 fastballs to righties. Of those, 11 were inside, and 19 were outside. He seemed to want to confuse hitters with two different outside fastballs that broke in different ways. Monday night, Lester threw 42 fastballs to righties. Of those, 27 were inside, and 12 were outside. Lester doubled his rate of inside four-seamers, or I suppose you could say David Ross called for Lester to double his rate of inside four-seamers, and I don’t figure this was a coincidence. These things are usually planned out, as Ross and Lester would’ve wanted to come up with an adjusted game plan for an offense that would be trying to adjust to what it saw last week.

As one example, here’s Lester busting Allen Craig inside for a called strike:

LesterCraig.gif.opt

And here’s Lester setting up Yadier Molina:

LesterMolina1.gif.opt

After a first-pitch outside changeup, Lester came with three straight inside fastballs. He tried to catch the outer edge with a curve, but Molina took it for a ball. Back Lester came with another inside fastball. The count still 2-and-2, Lester subsequently froze Molina with a perfect cutter on the outer edge. Molina would’ve been looking hard in, and soft away, and Lester exploited that.

LesterMolina2.gif.opt

Of course, no performance can be completely explained by a handful of numbers. Lester didn’t dominate because of any one thing; he dominated because of a whole bunch of things, all working together, all happening at different times or at almost the same time. Every plate appearance presented its own challenges, and every plate appearance demanded its own approach. It just so happened that Lester threw a lot more pitches inside, especially four-seam fastballs. Probably, that was deliberate. Lester had good stuff, and he had his command, and when you blend good stuff with good command, you get starts that win World Series games.

One throwaway note of some interest: at one point, Lester went 47 consecutive pitches without throwing one curveball. Before that, he’d thrown four out of 25 pitches. After that, he threw five out of 19 pitches. For a stretch, Lester was almost all about his fastball and cutter, but that was bookended by sequences in which Lester featured his breaking ball. Even within a start, starters can change quite a bit.

Lester now ought to be done starting and changing in 2013. The season he’s leaving behind came with its share of ups and downs. Yet it ended in the best possible way, with brilliance, with brilliance that put the Red Sox on the verge of a world championship. Two times in this World Series, Jon Lester beat Adam Wainwright. One of those times, Lester did more than he needed. The second of those times, Lester was as amazing as he needed to be. One way or another, Red Sox fans will never forget this World Series, and they’ll never forget how much Jon Lester did to help his team try to achieve the ultimate bounceback.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Brian
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Brian
2 years 8 months ago

Jeff, say for some reason Lester’s option isn’t picked up. If you had to choose, would you want the Mariners to sign Ellsbury or Lester? Would be a homecoming of sorts for both.

Spit Ball
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Spit Ball
2 years 8 months ago

Not pick up Lester’s option? I’m going to copy and paste a sentence from Jeff’s article.

“If it used to be true that there are no stupid questions, then I think we can agree it’s true no longer. Humanity has broken new ground.”

No MVP for MCAB
Guest
No MVP for MCAB
2 years 8 months ago

Should Lester have batted in the seventh?

My roommate and I got into an argument about this. He said that since Lester was cruising along and had a low pitch count, he could have been pitching into the eigth inning. I thought removing Lester for a key pinch hit by Napoli could have given the Sox more of a cushion then the one run lead they currently had.

josh
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josh
2 years 8 months ago

your roommate? you mean your dad?

PF
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PF
2 years 8 months ago

Sorry, I just don’t agree with you or Jeff for that matter. I know win-expectancy numbers would have increased with Napoli batting, but those numbers do not account for things in play at that moment. Lester hadn’t even thrown 70 pitches and was cruising along. If they remove him right there, they have to go to the bullpen for nine outs. Tazawa never throws more than an inning. So you have Tazawa for three of those outs, maybe Uehara for four (since that would be three days in a row, he’s not going more) and then who for the other two? Not Breslow. Not Doubront. Dempster? Win expectancy numbers think Breslow is still viable, for example. The Sox bullpen is not good right now; that’s why Lackey pitched the other night. Lester with only a one-run advantage is better than bullpen with a two- or three-run advantage in that moment, I think. And, of course, this doesn’t factor in the idea that Napoli has been horrid as a pinch hitter in his career and it’s not like he trashes righties or anything. I stay with Lester. Would love to hear other thoughts though. I think this was the most fascinating decision of the playoffs in any series.

Freakitiki
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Freakitiki
2 years 8 months ago

I felt Lester should’ve been pinch-hit for. With only one out, runner on 3rd, in a one-run game, that was a huge out to give away. The way it turned out, they got the run anyway, but getting a hit with two outs in that situation was highly unlikely: 1) Ellsbury hasn’t been hitting the ball well 2) The Red Sox have been atrocious with RISP. It worked out for the Red Sox, the run scored and Lester pitched well in 7th. But, if it doesn’t the media would be having a field day with it.

Chief Keef
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Chief Keef
2 years 8 months ago

The Red Sox being atrocious with RISP would work against hitting for Lester too. Plus pinch hitting with Napoli gives you about a 1 in 3 chance of striking out. The Red Sox bullpen was on fumes. It was the right call.

Shield Wall
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Shield Wall
2 years 8 months ago

These guys aren’t win expectancy robots. The Red Sox bullpen had just pitched five innings the day before and had to go to John Lackey in the 8th inning and Lester was at 69 pitches. People were upset Carlos Martinez wasn’t brought in yesterday too. But that ignores that he had just pitched three times in four days for the first time in his career the day before and looked fatigued.

GG
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GG
2 years 8 months ago

Since his pitch count was low….if pinch hitting for him or not was the difference in him possibly coming back for game 7 then they should have pinch hit for him. As a team, Cards are bad against Lefties and Lester is no ordinary lefty and other Sox starters are not only righties, but not of them elite righties.

Tom DeLonge
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Tom DeLonge
2 years 8 months ago

I think the correct argument is: NL rules suck.

Shield Wall
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Shield Wall
2 years 8 months ago

Yup.

NS
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NS
2 years 8 months ago

“But it’s so strategic!”

Mr. Jones
Member
2 years 8 months ago

— Lester himself was genetically identical —

Thanks for that, Jeff.

Johnny Ringo
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

My original thought was that Lester should have been pulled, but after reading the great explanation by PF above, I have to tend to agree completely.

Neil Weinberg
Editor
2 years 8 months ago

While that MVP question was brutal, I think the most noteworthy exchange was when one person asked Matheny about Miller/Mujica in conjunction with the shallow bench, Matheny gave a terrible answer, and then Heyman got the next question and instead of asking something interesting, asked “how tough is the task going forward?”

Journalism at its finest!

nada
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nada
2 years 8 months ago

I agree somewhat, but what should the follow-up question have been?

“Hey Mike Matheny, you seem to have made a terrible decision, one for which you cannot seem to articulate any reasonable defense… Would you like to apologize to Cardinals fans everywhere?”

George
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George
2 years 8 months ago

Yes.

nada
Guest
nada
2 years 8 months ago

… while the entertainment value for that question would be incredible, I strongly suspect that any reporter who tried that would never again be granted an interview with a Cardinals player, manager, or front office type. But perhaps that’s where the problem is: journalists are too dependent upon their subjects.

jim S.
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jim S.
2 years 8 months ago

It’s easy to criticize journalists for silly/stupid questions, but just remember, you’ve got to write some kind of story, you’re on some kind of deadline, and you would prefer a quote you can use.

MLB Rainmaker
Member
Member
MLB Rainmaker
2 years 8 months ago

I think guys with elite-level talent, like Lester, cruise a bit during the regular season and really press into another gear in the post-season. Verlander clearly did that this year, and it seems like Lester did as well, as he wasn’t as good as he’s been in the last two games at any point this year.

I don’t think it was the sequence you posted, but his full sequence against Molina was masterful. Lester started with a 94mph fastball to just miss the outside corner, then a 91mph cutter just low that Molina got a piece of, then a dirty 74mph curve right down the middle. Molina was absolutely frozen by that pitch. I think Molina lined out, but like Ross said after the game, the plan was just to get two strikes quick then make the Cards take defensive swings and Lester on point with that all night

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 8 months ago

Be interesting to read any theory of how Lester transformed himself. From Sep 2011 through August 2 2013 he had a 4.5+ ERA in 62 starts (almost 2 seasons). Since then he has had a sub 2 ERA in 10 regular season starts and 5 post season starts combined.

There was a time last July when folks were talking about the Red Sox not picking up his option, and them trading for Peavy was in large part related to Lesters struggles.

I think Papi gets the MVP if the Red Sox win unless Lester pitches game 7. Hard to give a starter the MVP making only 2 starts, especially of it goes 6-7.

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