On Sunday, Jon Lester took the hill as a pitcher who had been beaten up over the last month. In his previous six starts, Jon Lester had an 0-5 record with a 8.73 ERA, allowing a .321/.385/.588 slash line to opposing hitters. He had given up 42 hits in these six starts and almost half of them were for extra bases. The vultures were swarming above Fenway, and many observers were simply waiting for the inevitable announcement that he was hurt. After establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the American League, Lester was having his worst season as a major league pitcher, and it was only getting uglier as the season wore on.
And then on Sunday, Lester went and struck out 12 Cleveland Indians over six innings pitched. He gave up just three hits, all singles. He likely could have gone deeper in this one, but the Red Sox were already up 14-1 at that point. After weeks of getting beaten around like a Triple-A reject, he was nearly unhittable. Did Lester do anything fundamentally different in this outing, or was this just the old adage of sun on a dogs backside?
Maybe it was little bit of both.
Back in May I observed that it appeared Lester had changed his repertoire in 2012, and this has pretty much held true all season long:
PITCHf/x classifications on cutters and sliders is rather fickle, so we should instead turn to the actual pitch clusters to see what’s acting like a Lester cutter and what’s acting like a Lester sinker in 2012 versus 2011. The first chart is 2011, the second is 2012:
Based on the behavior of the pitch, that is, the kind of movement he’s getting — it does seem to support that he’s throwing fewer cutters and more sinkers. And in fact, the cutters that he has thrown in 2012 have demonstrated less horizontal movement than they did in 2011, behaving much more like his regular fastball. He tosses in a curve and a change about 13% of the time each, but that’s pretty consistent with years past. The big change appears to be a reliance on the sinker at the expense of the cutter.
But his last start kind of turns this repertoire trend on its head. Putting his pitch selection on August 12 into the chart above reveals a stark difference:
It appears that Lester used more cut fastballs on Sunday than he had in prior starts, and relied almost exclusively on his fastball over the course of his 101-pitch outing. In fact, he only threw 11 pitches that the algorithm classified as sinkers, even using his curveball more often than that. All four of his primary pitches produced whiff rates far above what we’ve seen from him on the year.
Perhaps it was an approach tailor made for the Cleveland Indians, I don’t know — we’ll have to see what happens his next time through the rotation before we know if this was a one game adjustment or an attempt to fix what had gone terribly wrong in his prior five starts.
And before we conclude that the old Jon Lester is back, it’s worth noting that the Indians have one of the worst lineups in baseball versus left handed pitchers. As a team, they have hit .229/.308/.351, good for just a .290 wOBA. So maybe the sun shone on Lester this day, but it could be that it was just Cleveland shining on him.
If you want to look at positives, August has been far and away Lester’s best month. His K rate is just shy of 30% while his walk rate is just 5%. His ERA over his three August starts is 3.48, but the predictors all point towards the low 2′s, and if you’re an FIP fan, it suggests just 1.45. He doesn’t have much to show for it in his record, but if you’re the Boston Red Sox, you have to consider this progress.
It has been an incredibly strange year for Jon Lester. He has struggled with his mechanics, he’s been ineffective pitching out of the stretch, he’s been prone to blowup innings. He’s had moments where he looks like the great pitcher from the last three seasons only to follow it up with a stinker. But his recent stretch of success coupled with perhaps a don’t-fix-what-ain’t-broke approach to his repertoire might be righting the proverbial ship. It’s likely too late for the Boston Red Sox to sniff a playoff spot, but if they can get Lester back on track, then at least something has been salvaged in 2012.