What’s Wrong with Lester?

Has Jon Lester fallen in love with his cutter?  That’s what Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe would lead you to believe.

“There’s also some stubbornness involved. Lester has fallen in love with his cutter, a very good pitch but one that opposing hitters are adjusting to.

In 2009, Lester’s pitch mix was:

Fastball: 54 percent
Cutter: 20 percent
Curveball: 20 percent
Changeup: 6 percent

In 2011, it is:

Fastball: 47 percent
Cutter: 27 percent
Curveball: 14 percent
Changeup: 10 percent

Lester seems to be too intent on tricking hitters instead of attacking them. He also gets frustrated when umpires won’t call certain pitches on the corner strikes. His stuff is too good to play that game. Overmatch the hitter and leave the umpire out of it.

At some point, Lester needs to get back to pitching off his fastball and using his cutter more as an out pitch. That’s part of the reason he is being pushed back in the rotation until next Tuesday in New York.”

While Abraham isn’t far off in his analysis, the numbers he provides don’t tell the whole story.  For instance, if Lester’s overusing his cutter, why hasn’t it plagued him all season?  Has he been overusing it all season, or is this a relatively new phenomenon?  Is it truly his cutter that’s been ineffective, or has it been another pitch, like maybe his curveball?  These are the questions, I’d like to examine today.

To start, let’s look at the Texas Leaguers data from his first seven starts when Lester looked like a sure fire Cy Young candidate going 4-1 while posting a 2.33 ERA and a 46/15 K/BB ratio in 46-1/3 innings.

Type Count Selection Velocity Vertical Horizontal Spin Angle Spin Rate
FF 303 41.8% 92.2 7.05 3.99 152 1,910
FC 141 19.4% 88.5 3.60 -0.93 203 847
CU 109 15.0% 76.3 -8.17 -3.47 340 1,290
SI 92 12.7% 91.8 1.86 7.27 119 2,119
CH 80 11.0% 84.8 3.07 9.45 112 1,986

During his first seven starts of the season, Lester was diligent in his use of his four-seam fastball, throwing it nearly 42% of the time.   He primarily used the pitch early in the count (throwing it 56.3% of the time on 0-0 counts) to establish the strike zone and get ahead of hitters.  This method was extraordinarily effective for him as he consistently worked himself into favorable counts.  As a result, this freed him up to use the full range of his repertoire to keep hitters off balance.  While his sinker was used to coax weak ground balls; his cutter, curve, and change-up were used to induce strikeouts.   Over this stretch of starts, Lester recorded strikeouts against 25% of all of the batters he faced, while achieving a ground balls 21.74% of the time.

Over his last five starts, Lester’s been much less effective going 3-1 with a 6.52 ERA and a 28/16 K/BB ratio in 29 innings.

Type Count Selection Velocity Vertical Horizontal Spin Angle Spin Rate
FF 181 32.9% 92.7 8.08 4.36 150 1,851
FC 175 31.8% 89.7 4.55 -0.40 187 941
CU 68 12.4% 75.2 -7.32 -3.99 330 1,354
SI 66 12.0% 92.3 4.65 8.81 117 2,060
CH 60 10.9% 84.7 3.97 9.37 112 1,889

Right off of the bat, we can see Lester’s pitch selection has changed drastically.  No longer is he relying predominately on his fastball to establish the strike zone and set up hitters.  Instead, he’s throwing his plus-cutter far more frequently.  This has been especially true in two strike counts, where he’s thrown the pitch 48.6% of the time.  For reference, he threw his cutter only 31.1% of the time in such counts during his first seven starts of the season.  As result, Lester’s become much more predictable in his pitch pattern.  In the past, hitters had to guess which pitch Lester was going to throw with two strikes.  Would it be the knee buckling curve, the late breaking cutter, the worm burning sinker, the blazing four-seamer, or the late diving change-up?   It was a crapshoot.  Now, hitters know what’s coming–the cutter.  Rather than swinging awkwardly at a pitch boring in on the hands, hitters either take the pitch for a ball, or adjust their swing to take a healthy rip at the pitch.  Not surprisingly, they’ve have been far more successful drawing walks and hitting line drives as of late.

So that’s it, right?  Lester’s overreliance on his cutter has been the primary reason behind his recent struggles.  Well…not so fast.  According to Brooks Baseball, his least effective pitch over these last five starts hasn’t been his cutter.  It’s been his 12-to-6 curveball.

Pitch 5/10/2011 5/15/2011 5/20/2011 5/25/2011 5/30/2011
FF -0.0992 0.3092 0.4346 -1.8073 1.4073
SI 0.0374 -0.0650 0.3963 0.8541 0.3851
CH 0.5472 0.6372 0.7753 -0.1184 0.4286
CU 4.3326 0.0636 2.5623 0.5719 0.0526
FC 0.0262 0.2228 -1.5171 -2.4180 -0.2729

For those of you who are familiar with neither pitch f/x, nor the concept of linear weights allow me to explain quickly.  The numbers in the table are linear weights scores, or LWTS.  Brooks Baseball defines LWTS as such:

“Pitch type LWTS correspond to how many runs were likely to score on a particular pitch based on the average run expectancy when each pitch was thrown, and what happened as a result.  Negative scores indicated more effective pitches.”

According to the chart I provided above, Lester’s cutter has been far more effective that originally thought, saving him -3.959 runs over his last five starts.  His curveball, on the other hand, has been particularly gruesome, costing him +7.583 runs.  These figures are supported by the pitch type values Fangraphs publishes.  This season to date, Lester’s cutter has been worth +8.8 runs, while his curve ball has cost him -8.3 runs.

The biggest problem with Lester’s curve ball is that he seems to be getting too much vertical break on the pitch.   According to pitch f/x, Lester’s curveball had an average vertical break of -4.95 in 2010. Over his first seven starts in 2011, the average vertical break on his curve ball was -8.17.  Over his last five starts, it’s been -7.32.  As a result of the additional vertical break, fewer pitches are crossing the plate within the strike zone; thus causing Lester to get into deeper counts and allowing more walks.  This problem is exacerbated further by the fact curveballs, by their nature, have a high watch rate (~50%).

One possibility Abraham doesn’t mention in his article is that perhaps one of the reasons Lester’s thrown more cutters as of late is due to the ineffectiveness of his curveball.  Although his curve is still inducing a fair amount of whiffs (10.7%), he’s doing so at a rate that’s nearly 30% lower than last season (14.7%).  Factor in that his curve is allowing more balls to enter the field of play (15.3% in 2011 vs. 12.0% in 2010), and you have a pitch that’s far less effective this season than in years past.  As Lester becomes less comfortable with the curve, it’s only logical that he’ll turn to other pitches, like his cutter to get batters out.  While this doesn’t explain why he’s cut back on the use of his four-seamer early in the count, it does explain why he’s throwing more cutters in general.  Josh Beckett went through similar stretches (see 2008 and 2010) in years past when he would turn to his change-up or cutter during stretches where he’d lost his “feel” for his curve ball.  This instance for Lester is no different.  Essentially, Lester needs to find a way to rediscover the plus-curve ball that was worth +18.0 runs between 2008 and 2010.  Provided he can do that, he’ll be able to cut back on his usage of his cutter as his out-pitch; thus making it more effective.  This, in turn, will give his four-seamer, change-up, and sinker greater impact.

In all likelihood, his curveball issue is mechanical, and will hopefully remedy itself shortly.  If not, we’ll probably see him continue to struggle at times throughout the season.  Still, this is Lester we’re talking about.  I have no doubt he’ll find a way to make adjustments to remain the top of rotation quality starter the Red Sox need.

Categories: Boston Red Sox Jon Lester

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

One Response to “What’s Wrong with Lester?” Subscribe

  1. Dorothea June 1, 2011 at 6:30 PM #

    His average four seam fastball velocity is down this year, from 93.7 in 2009, to 93.3 in 2010, to 92.5 this year. Do you think that plays into his using his fastball less, as perhaps decreased velocity has left it less effective?
    Why is his velocity down substantially this year?