Jon Lester’s Favorite Teammate

Among starting pitchers with at least 40 innings, here are the biggest increases and increasers in strikeout rate since 2013, by percentage points:

The Red Sox are playing well again, which means we get to write positive things about them. Among the most positive things has beenJon Lester, who’s taken a step forward after having taken a step back. Lester, for a couple years, posted ace-like numbers. The following three years he lost a lot of strikeouts, but now he’s back to the old level and then some, carrying what’s otherwise been an inconsistent starting unit. For Lester, it’s a good strategy in what remains a contract year — play better baseball. After all, better baseball means better baseball money.

An increase like Lester’s causes one to dig around for potential explanations. It’s not that he’s really throwing harder. It’s not like he’s dramatically changed his pitch mix. It’s not a matter of getting ahead more. Between 2011 and 2013, 29% of Lester’s pitches thrown were with two strikes. This year, he’s at 30%. But over those three years, under 18% of those two-strike pitches turned into strikeouts. This year, he’s at 24%. That’s a change, and it might lead you somewhere else.

Lester’s sitting on an increase in swinging-strikeout rate. He’s back around where he was in his peak. But now, take a look at his year-by-year called-strikeout rates:

2006: 3.5% called strikeouts
2007: 3.6%
2008: 4.0%
2009: 7.6%
2010: 8.6%
2011: 6.1%
2012: 4.6%
2013: 6.1%
2014: 11.9%

This season, Lester’s posting a career-high in called-strikeout rate, several percentage points higher than his previous best. And it turns out Lester is the major-league leader in raw called strikeouts, with 39 of them. That’s one ahead of Johnny Cueto. David Price has 36; C.J. Wilson has 31. No one else has more than 28. So it’s not like Lester has been depending on swings and misses.

Via Baseball Savant, we can look at a plot of all of those 39 called strikeouts:

lestercalled

Of course, any plot of called strikeouts is going to show a lot of pitches on the edges, or beyond them. Called strikeouts, by definition, are on pitches hitters don’t swing at. But with Lester, it seems there’s an unusual number of balls called strikes. A dozen of these pitches were considered within the PITCHf/x strike zone. That ranks Lester tied for 17th. Also, that leaves 27 called strikeouts on potential would-be balls. Here’s that leaderboard:

It’s not like you can explain all of Lester’s improvement by pointing to the extra called strikeouts. It’s only one factor. But it’s a fairly significant factor, considering, a year ago, Lester had 28 called strikeouts on would-be balls. The year before: 20. His high during the PITCHf/x era: 31. Lester, obviously, is on pace to shatter that. And one notes he’s made nine of his 12 starts being caught by David Ross, rather than A.J. Pierzynski.

With Pierzynski, in three games, Lester has registered five called strikeouts. Three were out of the zone. With Ross, in nine games, Lester has registered 34 called strikeouts, and 24 of them were out of the zone. Ross, as a catcher, doesn’t lead baseball in called strikeouts on balls, but that’s because he isn’t a regular starter. On a rate basis, he’s No. 1. Here’s some work between Lester and Ross from Sunday afternoon:

Lester1.gif.opt

Lester2.gif.opt

Lester3.gif.opt

Lester4.gif.opt

Ross has always been considered a good receiver, especially since we started getting our hands on data. He’s well above-average at preserving strikes, but he might be even better than that when it comes to gaining extra strikes. And that’s something we can observe with Lester. Below, a table, showing rates of strikes on pitches out of the average zone:

Year oTkS% League% Difference
2007 8.7% 8.5% 0.2%
2008 8.9% 8.1% 0.8%
2009 5.8% 7.6% -1.8%
2010 6.5% 7.5% -1.0%
2011 10.0% 7.4% 2.6%
2012 9.4% 7.0% 2.4%
2013 7.5% 7.1% 0.4%
2014 11.6% 7.4% 4.2%

Not all pitches out of the zone are created equally, with some in the dirt and some near the border. But Lester’s been getting a lot of the benefit of the doubt, in large part thanks to the way that he works with Ross. Ross caught Lester one out of three times a season ago, but then he caught him four out of five times during an excellent playoff run. This season, Lester and Ross have developed a rapport, which shows in the statistics.

“He and David Ross were in sync all day,” Farrell said Saturday. “Seemingly any pitch that David called, Jon was able to execute.”

“When you mix his stuff with my brains, it’s awesome,” said Ross with a wide smile.
[…]
“We threw a lot of backdoor cutters today,” Lester said. “We established early from the umpire that I was on the plate with it. When you have that, there’s no reason to go away from it. I just kept trying to make it and keep guys honest by coming in at different points.”

Baseball Prospectus has some particularly relevant information. On one of their pages, they look at framing data by battery. In terms of just extra strikes, Lester and Ross rank ninth in baseball. That’s out of hundreds of regular or semi-regular batteries. But while you can apply a constant run value to each extra strike, BP also calculates value by context. That is, a 0-and-0 called strike has a different value from a 3-and-2 called strike. Here are the league leaders in framing runs when you take into consideration count context:

It’s Ross and Lester by a relative mile. Ross has caught Lester well, but he’s also caught Lester particularly well in two-strike counts, where a third strike puts the batter away. Some credit goes to Ross for doing the catching. Some credit goes to Lester for doing the throwing. And the rest of the credit goes to Ross and Lester together, for preparing and being on the same page. It’s true a lot of the strikeouts have been off the plate, but if those strikes are going to be there, the players deserve credit for taking advantage of them. Lester and Ross have done that like no other pair to date.

At the moment, there might be no better battery than Lester and Ross. Or maybe there are better batteries, but this is a good twist for Lester and for his career, as he’s posting ace-like numbers in a season in which his team badly needs them. Lester has lifted his strikeouts, and a big part of that has been working with his catcher to expand the called strike zone. To a reasonable extent this should be sustainable, and it doesn’t look like there are many reasons for the Red Sox to have Pierzynski catch Lester all that often. Jon Lester’s always had the pitches he’s throwing. Right now he’s finding a way to get the most out of them.



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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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Ben
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Ben
1 year 11 months ago

I heard something a few days ago about Lester’s top games with the most strikeouts coming with a particular umpire. I’m not saying that is the entire cause of him being in the top of the league in strikeouts, just that he may have a few more than he really should.

Schuxu
Guest
Schuxu
1 year 11 months ago

This umpire should be suspended for his actions in the 4th .gif. Not because of the blown 3rd strike call but because the way he imediately confronts the batter afterwards.

sk
Guest
sk
1 year 11 months ago

confronts? isn’t he just walking that way? either way the umpire shrugs his shoulders id say it was a pretty mild confrontation.

Schuxu
Guest
Schuxu
1 year 11 months ago

It might be the camera perspective but for me it seems he gets way closer then the human comfort zone, also he gets into the face of the player and the gesture looks more like “you want to question my call?”

All in all his movement looks very aggressive. But yeah, maybe it would be better to see a bit more of the follow up before judging the umpires actions.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
1 year 11 months ago

It looks to me that he had a strong punchout call, which brought him towards the batter. Then after a slight hesitation, he walked up to the batter in a fairly confrontational matter. I’d have to assume that the batter said something pretty graphic right after the strike was called, and that led to the umpire’s actions. If the batter didn’t say anything more than “come on, blue”, then the ump was excessive.

RC
Guest
RC
1 year 11 months ago

I agree with Schuxu here… the ump gets out of his crouch and gets right up in the players face immediately. Might be because of something the player said, but the Umps shouldn’t be acting like that.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
1 year 11 months ago

And the batter dives out of the way of a pitch that is a least two keet from him. Bad acting on a very close pitch.

Dauber
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Dauber
1 year 11 months ago

Would that be a parakeet from him?

Jason B
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Jason B
1 year 11 months ago

You are my new favorite person. We should hang out more.

SeattleSlew
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SeattleSlew
1 year 11 months ago

That umpire probably went home and said to his wife, “Guess what honey? I struck out 15 tonight.”

everdiso
Member
everdiso
1 year 11 months ago

#robotumps

everdiso
Guest
everdiso
1 year 11 months ago

What’s a robo tump?

I don't care what anyone
Guest
I don't care what anyone
1 year 11 months ago

Just moved up a place in my fantasy standings. #rotobump

cs3
Member
cs3
1 year 11 months ago

Just moved down 2 places in my fantasy standings. #rotodump

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter
1 year 11 months ago

If I’m reading the chart properly, that red dot all the way to the left means that he threw a pitch 1 1/2 feet off the plate and it was called a strike? Is there a GIF of that pitch, as that seems to be a huge outlier.

Stevie Wonder
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Stevie Wonder
1 year 11 months ago

I was umping that game.

Don’t ask me how I just read that comment.

RC
Guest
RC
1 year 11 months ago

A foot and a half from the center of the plate… so about 6 inches off the plate…which is still a pretty terrible call.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
1 year 11 months ago

Good point. It’s still off the plate, but not nearly as dramatic as being a foot and a half off of the corner.

Jon L.
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Jon L.
1 year 11 months ago

Home plate is 17 inches wide, so a foot and a half from the center would be 18 – 8.5 = 9.5 inches off the plate. The pitch looks like it was slightly closer than that, but not really close enough that an umpire should be able to miss it.

Jason B
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Jason B
1 year 11 months ago

From some of those GIF’s, it looks like if he hits his spot and Ross’s glove doesn’t move much, he gets the call (even when Ross sets up off the plate). I think that’s been seen in some of the other catcher framing posts – not a lot of catcher/glove movement tends to get more calls than diving down after a ball, even one that may catch the plate.

Spit Ball
Guest
Spit Ball
1 year 11 months ago

I did notice the same thing. I think their is a reason he is getting some of those calls though. Ross has an ability to let the ball get close to his body when catching it, so he’s not as much framing as he is letting the pitch break for another 6 inches or so.

JCA
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JCA
1 year 11 months ago

I wonder at what point umpires or league officials will see articles like this and gifs and make it a point of emphasis not to give Lester, Cueto, Wilson, etc… anything on the edge?

tz
Guest
tz
1 year 11 months ago

I’ve thought the same thing, but I guess this is like asking why Alfonso Soriano has never learned to lay off the slider down and away.

Seriously. The late movement on some MLB pitches is very filthy (see that last Lester GIF). Both hitters and umpires probably extrapolate the location of the ball over the final few yards of the pitch as much as they physically “see” it.

David
Guest
1 year 11 months ago

what are hitters 1-3 doing taking pitches that close with two strikes?

tz
Guest
tz
1 year 11 months ago

From Ross’s comments, those could have been back door cutters that started out well off the plate and moved back in. GIFs 1,3, and 4 all look like they could be back door cutters.

vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
1 year 11 months ago

They’re working the count!

Swfcdan
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Swfcdan
1 year 11 months ago

Explains why he was so dominant in the playoffs, he was back to the elite Lester of old then. Good article.

I slept on him this year but aquired him in a trade for Bailey earlier this year, never looked back.

A question for you, presumably back in Lesters great past years it was Varitek (some V-Mart?) catching, is that the reason why those years were so great, an elite backstop?

BuckC
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BuckC
1 year 11 months ago

The same ump called Lester’s 15k game on May 3rd amd his 12k game on June 1st. The generous strike zone in those two games do a lot to explain what’s up with his k rate.

Ben
Guest
Ben
1 year 11 months ago

I was thinking that too, but even if you count half of those Ks as screw ups, Lester still has a K/9 of 9.22 which would be his best since 2010, so the premise of the article is still pretty valid.

John DiFool
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John DiFool
1 year 11 months ago

I’ve never liked these strike zone charts-all those triangles, ovals, and such should be drawn to the correct size of the baseball, and not to the size of a golf ball-because if any part of the ball crosses home plate, it is a strike. And strike zones are three- dimensional, not two-, and he gets a lot of late movement, which means some of those probably tailed back and caught the back edge of the plate, something which again the charts cannot document.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
1 year 11 months ago

Where are all these pitchers that have “early movement”?

And why don;t we hear of “early movement” as being their downfall? He’d be a great pitcher but his movement is just so damn early!

I do agree that the charts are what they are, would prefer something much more visually representative like you mentioned. Just put baseballs on the graph, even if it means using a photo program instead of a graph maker.

james wilson
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james wilson
1 year 11 months ago

Lester doesn’t want Ross out there because he is a better framer (he is), but because he is far more intuitive than Prezynski.

In general, his greater recent success is due to using the outside part of the plate against right handers, including sneaking cutters onto the edge. When Lester was getting hammered for two years everything was in, and even his better stuff was getting torched. He’s dumber than a box of rocks, pitching wise, and needs a babysitter behind the plate more than most. Maddox needed someone who anticipated what he was going to do, Lester needs to paint by somebody else’s numbers at all times.

The strangest thing about Lester is that he is the only left hander I am aware of who has not a lick of arm side movement to his fastball–even his change moves right–so even with above average stuff he badly needed to use both sides of the plate. When Lester was cutter happy inside on the hands there was no pitch to frame.

SeattleSlew
Guest
SeattleSlew
1 year 11 months ago

What are the chances that Lester signs with the Yankees this off season? I’m not a Yankees fan but if he keeps pitching like this he is going to demand top money and I just don’t see the Red Sox handing him a huge contract. As I look around the league the only team that would probably be willing to give him big money is the Yankees.

Madoff Withurmoni
Member
Madoff Withurmoni
1 year 11 months ago

Do you ever wonder if you’ve unintentionally made a guy like Ross a few dollars and cost a guy like Lester a few bucks by writing something like this? I mean you always assume that if we know it, GM’s know it, but there may be some who don’t, read it now that it’s been called attention to and change their thoughts on a player.

I mean, there’s no judgement on my part, just a thought that quickly crossed my mind.

BMac
Member
BMac
1 year 11 months ago

So, by the time an umpire accumulates sufficient seniority to be in the major leagues, he has lost the visual accuity to properly call balls and strikes, esp. on the harder stuff. He sneaks a peak at the catcher to figure out where the ball was, thus is open to deception.

Explain to me again why we have umpires calling balls & strikes, when machines would do a better job?

pft
Guest
pft
1 year 11 months ago

Lesters habitual and incessant whining gets him calls, especially at Fenway. I would think there would be a backlash, but there never is. Lot of whiners on that team and it gets them calls. Ortiz is Lesters equal on the offensive side.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
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Marcus Tullius Cicero
1 year 11 months ago

I’m not sure whether it’s encouraging or depressing that nearly a full win of the Red Sox’s “success” so far can be attributed to David Ross’s framing of Jon Lester’s pitches.

Isaac Sasson
Guest
Isaac Sasson
1 year 10 months ago

Happens to be that David Price leads the league in ball-called-strikes (on any count) with 183, which is over 7% of his pitches. Lester comes in a close third with 162, also north of 7% of his total pitches. The unexpected man in between them? David Phelps.

Isaac Sasson
Guest
Isaac Sasson
1 year 10 months ago

Question to the author, why can’t we make a defensive stat for catchers based on the amount of ball-called-strikes (good framing)? You could include stealing % off the catcher and other stuff but framing is a huge asset as we can see above.

Isaac Sasson
Guest
Isaac Sasson
1 year 10 months ago

Together with BP’s value by context

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