The Jon Lester Reclamation Project

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.



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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.


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anon
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anon
4 years 12 days ago

his non-cutter cluster kinda looks like australia.

/irrelevant

AndyS
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AndyS
4 years 12 days ago

Came to the posts to say that.

Steve
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Steve
4 years 12 days ago

Maybe he and Beckett had some Foster’s with their fried chicken?

filihok
Member
4 years 12 days ago

My first thought was Norway, Sweden and Finland

Don Draper
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Don Draper
4 years 12 days ago

When does season 6 of mad men start?

mcbrown
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mcbrown
4 years 12 days ago

By advanced metrics he has been pitching almost exactly the same as last season. Why isn’t the conclusion that he had an unlucky streak, followed by a not-unlucky game? Yet another case of “we believe in advanced pitching metrics except when we don’t”?

Dan
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Dan
4 years 12 days ago

He hasn’t been pitching exactly the same. Yes, his FIP and xFIP are consistent with last year, but he’s also surrendering several more line drives, less ground balls and less infield flies. Hitters are connecting better this year, and even though that probably doesn’t totally account for his severely inflated BABIP, this article demonstrates that his pitch selection probably is a major factor.

Good read.

mcbrown
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mcbrown
4 years 12 days ago

Batted ball rates fluctuate from year to year. As I said above, to say that changes in batted ball data are necessarily indicative of a change in skill/process despite unchanged K and BB rates assumes the conclusion.

jj
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jj
4 years 12 days ago

In a 3 game stretch (cry sample size all you want) he faced 71 batters and 35 of them reached base by hit or walk. He struck out 12 (~17%). Those 3 games account for 21 of his 85 ER this season (~25%). During that time he was not pitching like he was last year and his K and BB rates were not even close. If you want to buy the ‘bad luck’ ‘batted ball fluctuates and claim that for everything then I’m glad you are not a pitching coach because I’m thinking you would just send him out there and say keep doing what you are doing and the ball will start finding gloves.

Mcbrown
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Mcbrown
4 years 12 days ago

An even better reason for me not being a pitching coach is that I have no qualifications of any kind.

But this isn’t an analysis of mechanics, about which i know next to nothing – it’s an analysis of results, and i do know about numbers. In this case i believe the numbers are inconclusive. If you disagree with that statement please feel free to explain why.

HPJoker
Member
HPJoker
4 years 12 days ago

BABIP doesn’t tell you how hard said “unlucky” contact is. If he’s giving up a ton of hard contact like he has been, then you can’t just look at BABIP. In fact, in my opinion throw BABIP out the window if he’s giving up a ton of extra basehit and home runs.

mcbrown
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mcbrown
4 years 12 days ago

Just because contact was hard doesn’t mean it wasn’t unlucky. As an example: pitcher intentionally makes an offspeed pitch way out of the zone in a hitter’s count; batter just happens to guess the precise pitch and location and is sitting on it; batter makes hard contact; pitcher got unlucky IMO.

Throwing ERA predictors out the window because a pitcher’s HR/FB or line drive rate is high is precisely against the point of having ERA predictors in the first place.

jj
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jj
4 years 12 days ago

Maybe the adjustments that pitchers make during a season help bring things like BABIP and HR rates back towards their mean.

BronxBomber
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BronxBomber
4 years 12 days ago

Look at the charts. His stuff is clearly moving differently. Notice the hole at the origin in the 2012 chart.

Mcbrown
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Mcbrown
4 years 12 days ago

Definitely true. But different doesn’t mean worse (if we want to have that discussion i’d love to see a similar chart from 2010 to compare to). Based on his peripherals in 2012 I assert that he is performing at the same level, he just hasn’t been getting the results. Again, I welcome a statistical analysis that shows that I’m wrong or missing something and that he is 25 standard deviations beyond what we should expect from random variation.

Jonathan
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Jonathan
4 years 11 days ago

I’ve always been a big fan of Lester, but even I’ll note that the odds of his poor pitching this year being primarily luck based are slim.

Looking at pitch by pitch GIF’s, he’s been missing spots a decent bit this year. His walk rate was actually down for a while, but he was getting lit up because he was living dangerously in the zone.

In addition, if you dig into the metrics, he’s got a glaring disparity in home/road splits. Furthermore, there’s a glaring disparity in his home numbers on lefties versus righties.

Basically, on the road, he’s been pretty good. He’s been missing his spots a bit, but people haven’t killed him. At home, though, his BAbip is through the roof in one glaring situation: right handers pulling the ball. See where I’m going with this?

The biggest thing killing Lester this year is that he’s missing his spots and righties are taking it hard left. The Green Monster has always been tough on lefties, and while Lester is no exception, he’s managed to mitigate it for the most part previously.

Jonathan
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Jonathan
4 years 11 days ago

I’m not saying he can’t pitch at Fenway. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again. I’m saying Fenway is the most obvious, discernible issue this year.

He’s getting pulled by righties and it’s killing him at home because of the Monster. A lot of the reasoning for this seems to be due to missed location/command issues; it all seems mechanical and fixable to me. I wouldn’t call it luck based, by any means, though.

Patrick
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Patrick
4 years 11 days ago

I posted about this last night; it’s not just Jon Lester whose numbers are being skewed this year by Fenway.

The Red Sox offense is averaging 5.4 runs/game at home vs. only 4.2 on the road, and Red Sox pitchers have an ERA almost a run higher at home than on the road. I checked out ESPN’s park factors and sure enough the numbers for Fenway are significantly higher than usual: there are 17% more hits, 18% more HR’s, 27% more runs, 30% more triples and an astounding 50% more doubles in a game at Fenway than in an average game.

The Red Sox three left handed starters, Lester, Morales and Doubrant, have particularly pronounced platoon splits. Without being sure what’s really going on, there would appear to be a strong case that the ball is carrying especially well to LF this year — which would lead to more doubles and triples especially against lefties. It may also be why Lester feels less comfortable throwing his cutter — a pitch that moves inside toward RH hitters.

This is highly speculative, but there would appear to be a strong case that (a) Lester’s struggles are in large part a product of pronounced park effects and his response to it, and that (b) the Red Sox maybe ought to be more worried about their pedestrian hitting than their wind-blown pitching.

Jonathan
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Jonathan
4 years 10 days ago

@Patrick: That “pedestrian” road split is still better than the overall figure for the Orioles, Rays and A’s.

Polka
Guest
4 years 12 days ago

well he’s been bending me over the barrel and showing me the 50 states all year up until recently, and this is when I need him most, so keep it up Lester!

nolan
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nolan
4 years 12 days ago

How do you find team splits such as Cleveland’s batting line against LHP?

Ransom
Member
Ransom
4 years 12 days ago

The Jon Lester Reclamation Project is the name of my Toad the Wet Sprocket cover band.

KDL
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KDL
4 years 12 days ago

Humble suggestion: drop the ‘The’.
I would pay covers upwards of $5 to see this band.

Boomer
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Boomer
4 years 11 days ago

You definitely need to get a gig opening up for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

designated quitter
Guest
designated quitter
4 years 11 days ago

It’s the other guys in the ‘Alan Parsons Project’ with a new frontman. One with issues on the mound, and a Fender Telecaster.

Patrick
Guest
Patrick
4 years 12 days ago

Actually what’s killing Jon Lester is the same thing that is killing all the Red Sox pitchers: Fenway Park. He has an ERA of about 3.10 and about 8.5 k/9 on the road

I might dismiss this as a statistical fluke except that ALL the Red Sox starters are exhibiting huge home–road splits as are all their hitters except Pedroia and Middlebrooks. (Note: Buchholz has a lower ERA at home, but is averaging an extra k/9 on the road). The Red Sox have a lower road ERA than Tampa, as they did last year.

The Red Sox home/road splits are extreme; in the case of some pitchers (Lester, Morales) freakishly so. It would be interesting to see if Fenway has over the last year or so, become more hitter friendly for some reason (weather?), and to try to figure out what it’s doing to the Red Sox pitching. At a minimum, it has to be driving up pitch counts, which in turn could be leading to fatigue and more innings for the last guy in the bullpen.

Ben Hall
Member
Member
Ben Hall
4 years 12 days ago

The tone of the beginning of the article suggested that until Sunday, Lester had been terrible recently: “In his previous six starts…” Near the end of the piece, though, you point out that he actually hadn’t been terrible in the three previous starts. In particular, his start on August 2 wasn’t bad at all: 8 IP, 7 K, 0 BB, 3 ER.

Just weird to set the tone that he had been awful recently when he clearly hadn’t been.

Franco
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Franco
4 years 12 days ago

I thought there was an article recently on FG about him losing a bunch of velocity this year? That would explain the overall badness this year and the possible injury scenario.

Don Draper
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Don Draper
4 years 12 days ago

Good point bro

TutGadol
Member
TutGadol
4 years 12 days ago

With all the lefties in the Indians lineup it makes sense for him to throw more cutters then sinkers. I would like to know how many sinkers / cutters he threw to left handed hitters this season, and only then how much he threw to the Indians to see if he’s getting fastball-heavy again.

ASIMPLEANSWER
Guest
ASIMPLEANSWER
4 years 11 days ago

Solves this all!
Velocity.
/Thatisall

everdiso
Guest
everdiso
4 years 11 days ago

Does fangraphs have a quota for Red Sox posts? I’ve never seen such obsession with with a franchise that’s been the best or second best in baseball for a decade. Where are the Blue Jays posts? Isn’t a perennially mediocre team’s quest to sneak into the playoffs at least once in this generation far more fascinating?

everdiso
Member
everdiso
4 years 11 days ago

I just crunched the numbers, my adorable troll, and I’ve got GREAT news…..with this last troll post you have finally turned the red sox into the powerhouse team that you said they were, and have exposed me as being completely wrong about them from the start!

CONGRATS!

payroll
Guest
payroll
4 years 11 days ago

The Indians are the most lefthanded team in the AL. That is the reason for Lester’s success against them.

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