What’s Wrong With Jon Lester?

From 2008 to 2010, there were only six pitchers in baseball better than Jon Lester, and you can probably identify them all by first name — Roy, Cliff, Tim, Zack, CC and Justin. Last year however, was a different story. Lester was still one of the top 30 pitchers in the game, but he was ensconced safely outside of the top 10. While many expected a rebound, or at least for Lester to plateau in 2012, he has continued his descent, with the exclamation point coming yesterday, when he allowed 11 runs in four innings to the Blue Jays.

As we noted last week with Jonathan Sanchez, part of Lester’s trouble may stem from the fact that while his fastball velocity is declining, his changeup velocity is increasing. The changeup hasn’t been a problem for Lester this season, but his fastball certainly has. Lester has not even lost a mile and a half on his four-seamer, and it is still the ninth-fastest four-seamer among left-handed starters. But that sentence is a bit of a tip off, isn’t it? Two seasons ago, that sentence would have read “tied for 11th-fastest in the game.” Now, it needs qualifiers. Also, it is getting hit hard — he is allowing a .397 wOBA on his fastball this season.

Still, that’s not what is most troubling. In 2010, when Lester posted a 3.13 FIP, he allowed a .396 wOBA on his fastball, so clearly he can be effective without a dominating fastball. But what Lester does need to be effective are the pitches that break — his cutter, curveball and sinker — and right now, they are not. His cutter, in particular, has been a mystery. For starters, he is either throwing it less frequently or he has been throwing it in a way that makes it harder to identify as a cutter. That can sometimes be attributable to a computer or user error or change in how pitches are identified, but if it isn’t, it’s a big issue for Lester moving forward. Over the last three seasons, the cutter had been Lester’s bread and butter, and had been one of the most effective cutters in the game. From ’09-’11, he threw it 20.5 percent of the time. This year, that has dipped to 11.5%. Hitters are still having trouble squaring up the pitch, but they’re not missing it with the frequency they have in the past — his SwStr% on his cutter is four percent lower than it has been the past three seasons.

His curveball and sinker have not been much better. First, let’s look at his curveball:

Year PA wOBA
2007 26 0.103
2008 123 0.238
2009 105 0.189
2010 135 0.18
2011 95 0.254
2012 53 0.371
Total 537 0.223

Now, what we’re looking at here needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Because only 53 of the batters he has faced this year have seen a curveball as the final pitch in said plate appearance, there is room for noise in these numbers. But it bears watching, since Lester’s wOBA allowed on curveballs is currently is almost 150 points above his career norm. In addition, perhaps it should tell us something that he is featuring it that much less frequently at the end of plate appearances the past two years.

His sinker has stabilized a bit better, but the results there aren’t promising either:

Year PA wOBA
2010 109 0.325
2011 126 0.353
2012 150 0.373
Total 385 0.353

Lester is throwing his sinker more than ever before even though it is getting harder than ever before. And unlike in 2010, when he had a respectable 8.7 SwStr% on the pitch, he is only getting swings and misses on 4.0% of his sinkers this season. Which would be fine if he was generating weak contact, as sinkers are not necessarily designed to be a swing and miss pitch, but he’s not. He’s getting hit hard, and what’s worse, he’s getting his sinker hit into the air — a career-worst 22.8% of the time.

Add it all up, and Lester is throwing four of his five pitches below the standards to which he is accustomed. When things like that happen, you end up with a second straight season of pronounced platoon splits. When things like that happen, you end up with a career-worst 23.3 LD%. When things like that happen, you post the worst HR/FB of your career. And yet, is Lester really doing that poorly? He’s still been worth close to two wins, and if you look at his minus numbers, he’s still been a better-than-league-average pitcher. His K% is down, but so is his BB%, and his K/BB numbers are in line with his last two seasons. His BABIP is up a lot this season, and that could be because his pitches have lost some of their mojo. It could also be just bad luck. Certainly, starts like yesterday’s don’t come around too often, and when they do, the opposing team doesn’t always cash in to the degree the Blue Jays did. On Wednesday, Justin Masterson had a very similar start in terms of baserunners allowed and innings pitched — 14 in 4 1/3 innings against Tampa — but the Rays only cashed in four of them.

It is clear that Jon Lester has slipped from ace status, but how far is still up for debate. His pitches have been far less effective, and his platoon split is troubling, especially since the overwhelming majority of the batters he faces are right-handed. Yet, as recently as last month, he had posted a season-best monthly FIP of 2.92. His E-F number is third-worst in the game at the moment and his 3.80 xFIP places 39th out of 100 qualified pitchers. Interest certainly hasn’t dampened on him either, as the Braves have recently inquired about his availability.

Lester’s struggles will continue to be magnified in Boston because, number one it’s Boston, and number two the Red Sox — thanks to the fluctuation of both health and effectiveness of every other member of its starting rotation — need him now more than ever. If he is able to turn things around, then his last three starts — in which he has allowed 22 runs in 12 1/3 innings — will become a blip on the radar screen, much like when he allowed 15 runs in 16 innings in his first three starts of 2010. If he isn’t, we will remember this past weekend as the time when we stopped referring to him in the same discussions with guys like CC, Justin, Cliff and Roy.

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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN MLB Insider and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

42 Responses to “What’s Wrong With Jon Lester?”

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  1. Ian says:

    Comparing his last start to Masterson’s is silly. Masterson allowed 7 BB and 4 H (all singles), so you’d expect many of those runners to not move far. Lester allowed 4 HR — he really got crushed.

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    • mg says:

      Don’t mean to suggest that you can’t see the forest for the trees, etc, but that’s an awfully detailed breakdown of someone’s statistical splits to ignore the most glaring thing on the guy’s resume’, which is his home-and-away. His Fenway ERA is 4 runs higher (!) than his road (7.39 to 3.04)(I’ve never seen a split like that before – have you? 4 runs hgher?), opposing BA is 100 pts higher (!), slugging is 200 pts higher (!!), wOBA is 125 pts higher (!!!) – none of the problems that you exhaustively analyze exist anywhere for Lester but home/Fenway. I honestly have no idea if/how Fenway affects him in particular, but you can’t try to analyze his problem and somehow not even mention it. It’s kinda like you “buried the lead”. Gotta be careful sometimes that you’re not staring so hard at the numbers that you don’t notice the 800-lb. gorilla looking over your shoulder…. Again, I’m not saying there’s any rationality to how he is now unable to perform in front of his home crowd, but it has obviously (both practically and statistically) become the primary factor in his melt-down, and the other stats/splits look relatively secondary by comparison.

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  2. Glenn DuPaul says:

    I honestly think the problem with Lester has been his work ethic. He seems to be heavier this seasons, which may be due to age, but he doesn’t look the same physically as the Jon Lester who was in discussions with the CC, Cliff and Justin’s of the world. And I think this may be causing his pitches to be less effective.

    Just a thought. Good piece.

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    • Sam says:

      People who say things like this without any sort of knowledge past what they see on the TV screen are just terrible.

      Terrible, I tell you.

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      • Glenn DuPaul says:

        I don’t have any knowledge other than what I see with my two eyes, but how many of us have actual knowledge into what Lester’s daily routine is?

        I made that comment without any bias towards the beer and chicken rumors. I’m just stating that Lester doesn’t look like the physical menace that he was in 2010, when was dominant.

        The guy obviously has an extremely high work ethic to be able to fight back from cancer, and I give him all the credit in the world for what he has done. But at the same time, he just doesn’t look the same.

        I was merely observing, and attempting to give some kind of hypothesis for why he isn’t as effective as the Lester we’re used to seeing.

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      • chuckb says:

        People aren’t terrible for saying things with which you disagree or even for saying things you think are without merit. Their comments may be terrible, but they are not.

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      • Tim says:

        Totally agree. People are idiots.

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    • Andrew says:

      Right, if Lester looked more like CC he’d probably be better off.

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      • Crash Davis says:

        If you’re fat and successful, you’re colorful.

        If you’re fat and unsuccessful, you’re lazy.


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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        But CC’s always been huge. There’s a difference between being fat and getting fat. If Lester has gotten fat, and I’m not saying that he has, you have to look at that as a possible factor in his decline.

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    • maguro says:

      Too much fried chicken?

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  3. Franco says:

    So, young guy sucks all of a sudden and a big drop in velocity means he’s about to go down with catastrophic injury?

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  4. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    “Roy, Cliff, Tim, Zack, CC and Justin”

    this sounds uncomfortably like a 1996 one-hit wonder boy band.

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    • Ludwig von Koopa says:

      I assume their hit would be the song “Strike Three (You’re Out)”. Parentheticals are umpire vocal samples:

      “You’re out of the game! (Strike one!)
      Out of my heart! (Strike two!)
      Out of my life! (Steeeee-rike three!)
      Strike one, two three (Yerrrrrr outta here!)”

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      • Ludwig von Koopa says:

        I would have put more effort into making it rhyme properly, but those boy band songs never seemed to rhyme either.

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  5. Tyler says:

    He loses focus. He can still make good pitches, just needs to make them more often.

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  6. Sandy Kazmir says:

    He should probably just get back on his post chemo-steroids

    -62 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. everdiso says:

    INB4 troll everdiso

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    • everdiso says:

      my take – good players have bad years. they can even lose it suddenly after a few good years in a row and never get it back.

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  8. Lance Armstrong stayed on his post-chemo steroids for years, what’s going on with Lester? Doesn’t have the heart of a winner to stick to the program?

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  9. brendan says:

    he’s murdering my fantasy team, that’s what’s wrong with him

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  10. MustBunique says:

    Right on with the sinker info. He has thrown it more this year than any other year since introducing it in 2010 (with some FT thrown in 2009) and has not had good results at all. Please, if you are not going to remove the pitch completely at least dial down how many times you throw it. What’s the Einstein definition of insanity again?

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  11. BigNachos says:

    I don’t think Lester’s fastball velocity has dropped at all this year. Even last game, his fastball was sitting around 95 mph.

    I think the drop shown in Pitch/FX is due to some of his cutters not actually moving and being mis-identified as straight fastballs, which bring down his overall average velocity slightly.

    Really, the confusion Pitch/FX has with Lester really explains it all–his 2-seamer is fastball than his 4-seamer (what?), his cutter isn’t cutting, and a whopping 4.8% of his pitches aren’t identified compared to 0.1% a year ago. His slump has nothing to do with a loss of velocity and everything to do with a loss of feel for his secondary pitches.

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  12. Fern Mergus says:

    As a Red Sox fan, I have always been skeptical that he was worthy of the “ace” title, excellent 2008-2010 seasons nonwithstanding. This stemmed from a lack of faith that he could step to the plate and deliver when it was necessary. He always seemed to be a step away to be in the Halladay, Lee, etc crowd even if the numbers would tell you otherwise. Nowadays, his attitude seems to really suck. Part of his recent struggles have to be mental. A change of scenery is in order… since a trade won’t be done… how about a DL stint with some MiLB rehab?

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  13. vivalajeter says:

    Regarding your opening sentence, there’s a difference between having the 7th most fWAR and being the 7th best pitcher. I would argue that Felix Hernandez was a better pitcher (virtually identical FIP/xFIP, much better ERA (albeit in a pitcher’s park), and almost 70 more innings). Haren may have been better too. fWAR shouldn’t be used as a be-all-end-all stat.

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    • RC says:

      And the fact that a pitcher plays in a park that suppresses runs/etc by 20% shouldn’t be just an aside.

      Lester pitches in a park that inflates runs. Hernandez in one that heavily suppresses.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Did Safeco suppress them by 20% in 2008-2010 though? I thought this year was an extreme example for Safeco, but the author is noting 2008-2010. And wouldn’t FIP/xFIP take this into account anyway?

        Felix pitched to a nearly identical FIP/xFIP, but he pitched more than 20 extra innings per season. An argument can easily be made that he was as good or better than Lester. You can’t just sort by WAR and say those are the best players, in order. It’s a great starting point, but not it’s not foolproof.

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  14. tom s. says:

    if wOBA against doesn’t stabilize in sample sizes of 25-150 PA’s (which it doesn’t), why are we using these stats as a way to evaluate whether, how, or why lester is getting worse or better?

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  15. Tom trapasso says:

    I don’t know what’s wrong if it’s mental or personnel but I did state last week on bleacher report about his mechanics which was noted today, that his hips are flying open which creates arm drag there for leaving him squared up to the batter. It makes them see the ball longer to identify his pitches .

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  16. GilaMonster says:

    I wrote a pieces on this. I attributed it to his sinker and four seam fastball being too similar. There vertical movement and velocity are nearly identical. His sinker doesn’t actually sink. The horizontal movement on his cutter is breaking away from righties, while it use to break towards righties.

    I used some pitch f/x/ and fangraphs earlier piece on the issue.

    I believe limiting his sinker usage and bring back the fastball,cutter, curve,changeup will help Lester a lot.

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  17. GilaMonster says:

    Also I pose this question. Why would Lester, a pitcher who has had a high GB% rate with his fastball and cutter, decide to start being a sinkerball pitcher?

    It seems odd.

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  18. Ray says:

    I’m trying to figure out if there was any point where we named him with that list at the end… oh that’s right, we haven’t.

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  19. james wilson says:

    Lester doesn’t throw a sinker and never has. I don’t remember him ever using the term.

    Problem number one, he got cutter happy. After a few years, hitters got very comfortable with it. Even when he threw it as well as he ever did, it was getting absolutetly crushed this year.

    Then he started getting under all his pitches. Even at 94 the fastball looked like it was suspended on a tee.

    His location was not very good.

    He made an obvious effort in the first inning of his last start to pitch downhill and stay on top of the ball, and this left him with no idea how to locate whatever, so he went back to his old new habbits.

    Two left handed starters for Toronto dominated the Red Sox with sub-90 stuff–one sat at 86. Lester on the other hand apparently never learned one thing about pitching because he didn’t have the need, or so he thought. He is completely lost, and admittedly so. It is hard to believe someone with several years in MLB could be so unprepared and so clueless, but he is. This was coming down last year, and he did not one thing over the winter to examine what was going on.

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  20. jorgath says:

    What isn’t wrong with Jon Lester?

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