- FanGraphs Fantasy Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy -

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.