The New Jon Lester

Jon Lester was pretty terrific in his last outing, throwing a complete game with six strikeouts while giving up eight hits (seven singles) and one earned run. Owners across the fantasy landscape collectively breathed a sigh of relief. And yet, it was against the Seattle Mariners who have a tendency to make starting pitchers of questionable quality look like Cy Young.

Over the last four seasons, Lester, 28, is ranked 5th among qualified starters in K/9 at 9.17, just a tick behind Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander. Over the same time span, he’s fourth in overall WAR at 16.9, ahead of Kershaw, Chris Carpenter, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain, among many other great arms. In most fantasy drafts, Lester satisfies that “staff ace” slot for managers who like to lean on someone to anchor their pitching staff.

But this season, Lester started out with a couple decent outings, a couple of real stinkers, and then a couple middling starts. All along the way, he’s demonstrated an inability to re-create the swing-and-miss stuff that allowed him to breeze through similar tight situations in years past. In general, Lester has just lacked that polish that made him such an effective pitcher for the past four seasons.

Lester’s 3.71 ERA and 1.27 WHIP aren’t vintage Lester — what fantasy baseball enthusiasts might expect from him – but well within the realm of reality for Lester’s career. And in terms of luck, his predictors are pretty much in agreement with his FIP at 3.52, xFIP at 3.99 and SIERA at 4.17. But he’s getting his outs in a decidedly different manner this season (so far) and color me just a little concerned about the observable trends. Below are Lester’s contact rates, strikeout rates, and swinging strike rates over the last four seasons:

Yes, we’re still looking at sample sizes that aren’t necessarily stable in 2012, but the trend over 600+ innings for these three particular statistics are certainly headed in the wrong direction. And I get that I’m cherry picking a bit — there are other areas that he’s kind of the “old” Lester — but an ability to miss bats is pretty crucial, and right now, Lester’s not doing much of it.

What has changed? He’s altered his pitch selection some in 2012. He’s throwing far fewer cut fastballs and far more sinkers:

Why this might matter is because his cutter was by far his most valuable pitch in 2011, at just about two wins above average per 100 pitches, while his sinker was just a touch below average. Early on, his sinker has actually been quite effective in 2012, however at about 2.4 wins above average per 100 pitches, so perhaps that’s not such a bad choice. But his sinker isn’t doing much in the missing bats department:

In two strike counts, Lester went to his cutter 40% of the time in 2011 producing a 16% whiff rate, and this year it’s down to 29% usage in two strike counts producing a 10% whiff rate. He’s relying much more heavily on his curveball and changeup, both of which he’s struggled to throw for strikes (64% of his two strike curveballs have been balls).

Lester has always been particularly tough on left handed batters, holding them to a .233/.298/.357 triple slash line in his career – and he’s even been stingier in 2012. But where he’s historically struck out lefties over 23% of the time, he’s down to just a 16% K rate in 2012. This is, in part, due to a change in his pitch selection, which has impacted his strikeouts:

Odd chart to read, but yes – he’s throwing the four seam fastball more, producing fewer swings and misses, the curve a little more producing zero whiffs, the slider much more producing zero whiffs, and the cutter less, which is perhaps the only reliable out pitch versus left handed batters he has thus far. Now, the “N” here is small, so I’m getting awfully granular and I’m not suggesting that this is damning evidence that he’s not going to improve versus left handers going forward — but if you’re scratching your head wondering where all the strikeouts have gone, you can point to the repertoire first, and second, to his pitch selection in strikeout counts.

His results haven’t been awful, and from a fantasy perspective, you can learn to live with this version of Lester. We’ve seen veteran pitchers transition to the whole “pitch to contact” philosophy in an effort to reduce pitch counts and work deeper into ballgames, and perhaps that’s what we’re seeing in 2012 for Jon Lester, for better or for worse. But with roughly one third of his allowed hits going for extra bases, he might want to alter his approach when envisioning just what kind of contact he’s trying to induce.


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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.

19 Responses to “The New Jon Lester”

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  1. Seb says:

    Great article. Being a fan of the blue jays I may be slightly biased, but it seems that more and more pitchers are adopting the pitch to contact mentality.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      Thanks! I’m not totally convinced he’s doing it entirely intentionally. I think the next several starts will help identify if the repertoire trend is a real one.

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  2. Shaggychild says:

    Interesting read. Not discrediting it at all, but Lester seems to always start off slow, then really pick it up as the season wears on. I fully expect him to turn it “on” anytime now.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      it’s true that April isn’t his best month – historically, it’s been June. But he was very good in March/April last season and I’m also just so curious about this pitch selection thing. I’m not saying the old Lester is gone, but he’s just kind of missing right now.

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  3. Adrian Gonzalez says:

    I’m wondering if some of his pitch selection is related to Salty catching him.

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  4. Slevin Kelevra says:

    Lester with another GARBAGE performance against the Phillies

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    • JDanger says:

      I’m done with him. What a bum. He’s on the bench indefinitely.

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    • Miro says:

      He reported to have a stiff back and couldn’t get anything going but I’m tired of excuses. I’d trying to sell as fast as possible. There’s no safe team to face in the AL East and his declining K/9 is very concerning.

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  5. TD says:

    Im trying to figure out what to deal him for, which pitchers to target – he doesn’t have a whole lotta value in my league

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  6. Ryan says:

    The thing about Lester that I’ve noticed as a Sox fan is a decrease in his velocity since the beginning of last season. In 2009 and 2010 he was sitting at 94-95 with his fastball and regularly cranked it up to 96-97. Last year he never seemed to hit the mid-90s and it was more 91-92. That’s continued this year. I checked the velocity charts for him and it shows exactly what I just described. He isn’t throwing as hard as he did during his two best seasons.

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  7. Misfit says:

    Jon Lester’s declining effectiveness is something I’ve been watching with some concern dating back to last year. Going into 2011, I was hopeful he’d “break-thru” and really cement himself as the ace of Boston’s staff but instead he had an injury plagued 2011 that ended up being a setback, instead of step forward. It really started in 2010 when his walk rate increased but the strikeouts remained steady. The K’s dropped some last year, while the walk rate remained about the same, but I felt the injuries he experienced during the season provided a reasonable excuse.

    This year though, he’s just not missing bats. I’ve seen most of his starts thus far and his pitches lack finish. I don’t know if he’s just not feeling the cutter or what, but he’s not getting the ball in on righties and they’re making him pay. It was especially noticeable in his most recent start against the Phillies. He looks like he’s trying to reach back and get something by hitters but he’s not finding that extra velocity and he’s not using his cutter. It’s rather bizarre as historically when a right handed is up, especially with 2 strikes, he would in the past just attack their hands with cutters. His fastball velocity is in-line with what he produced last year, and down slightly from prior years, but as one commenter already pointed out he’s not finding the mid to high 90’s heat when he needs it like he used to. Hopefully he’s just trying to ease into the season, but based on what my eyes tell me, that’s not the case. He’s trying to strike guys out, and it’s just not happening for him right now.

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    • Ryan says:

      All completely true. He’s spoken in the past of trying to throw fewer cutters to be a little less predictable but it almost seems like he’s taken that advice too far because it’s always been his best pitch by far in the past. I almost wonder if it’s a conditioning issue with him. I remember when he first came back from the cancer scare he was throwing about where he is now but then as his body regained strength he was able to pump it up into the high 90s. Like you said, he maintained that until the beginning of last season and it just hasn’t come back for him. Too much fried chicken perhaps?

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  8. RC says:

    “But this season, Lester started out with a couple decent outings, a couple of real stinkers, and then a couple middling starts. All along the way, he’s demonstrated an inability to re-create the swing-and-miss stuff that allowed him to breeze through similar tight situations in years past. In general, Lester has just lacked that polish that made him such an effective pitcher for the past four seasons”

    Look at Jon Lester’s month-to-month stats. He does this EVERY YEAR.

    This may actually be the best spring hes had.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      just not true. 2011, he was great in Mach/April, K/9 over 8. 2010, K/9 rates April, May – 10.05 and 9.20. Even when he wasn’t getting results in May of last year, he was striking batters out (23.6%).

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  9. John says:

    This article, while very informative an interesting, may not really be on point. It seems to say that pitch selection may be the reason for his decrease in Ks. While his pitch selection has definitely changed I am not sure that explains his decline in the K category.

    This article points out that he has been throwing his most effective whiff pitches- the cutter and the change- much less this season, and seems to hint that if he changes this and throws these pitches more often then the Ks will increase. However in the 5 starts this season* where he has thrown those pitches at a rate in line with last year and in years past he is still averaging only 5.9 K per 9 IP….essentially no different from what he has averaged this year when he doesn’t throw his “whiff pitches”.

    Basically what I am trying to say is that so far even these “whiff pitches” are NOT getting whiffs and I am not confident that throwing the cutter and the change more will make his Ks necessarily increase. This article shows that his K rate is definitely decreased but I don’t think anybody would have forseen such a precipitous drop from a K/9 in the mid 8s to the low 6s (or maybe even lower!). IMO the problem is not velocity (which is in line with last year) or pitch selection…something else is definitely going on. Maybe a change in strategy such as he is consciously trying to pitch to contact? Who knows but what is clear is that this guy is having trouble missing bats this season no matter what pitches he throws. I think we may be looking a a 6.5 k/9 pitcher here folks which is sad because so much of his value was derived from his Ks.

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  10. Sean says:

    Something’s up. I’ve been considering dealing Lester and what sold me was his career K rate has never been even close to this low. As much of a decrease from his career K/9, Lester’s in the 4 K/9 rate in his 2012 May starts.

    Interestingly I’m targeting Jason Hammel, whose underlying numbers look legit – just an idea for other owners looking to unload Lester for a less flashy name.

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  11. TD says:

    I just dealt him for Matt Garza whose peripherals I much prefer.

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