Jon Lester‘s season certainly did not end on a high note. Not only did he go 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in September, but he was indicted for his alleged role in the fried chicken and beer scandal once the season had come to an end. Lester was one of the first to speak out against the allegations, but it did little to repair his dampened reputation.
In September, Lester struck out over nine batters per nine innings, walked about 4.5 per nine and posted a 3.79 xFIP. Those numbers indicate that he pitched better than his ERA would suggest. Take away that tumultuous month and Lester’s ERA drops from 3.47 to 3.09.
Before the season, many people, myself included, touted Lester as a possible Cy Young candidate. What he had done in 2010 (3.25 ERA, 3.18 xFIP) gave us reason to believe that the 27-year-old was about to hit the ground running straight into the prime of his career. In 2010, Lester walked almost one batter per nine more than he had the previous two seasons. I was convinced that the slight drop in command/control would adjust back this season. It did not. Along with a walk rate that was a bit worse than the league average, Lester saw a drop in strikeout rate from about 26 percent in 2009 and 2010 to about 23 percent in 2011.
Part of the drop in strikeout rate could be explained by a slight drop in overall velocity, as shown via FanGraphs.
Velocity is one thing, but clearly Lester still had the pure stuff to miss bats. Even with a regression in strikeout rate, he still posted 8.6 K/9, which was well above the league average. The bigger problem, and bigger concern, was his regression in command. Lester allowed 20 home runs in 191.1 innings, a HR/9 of 0.94, his highest home run rate since breaking into the big leagues back in 2007.
The strike-zone plots below show the location of his fastball (red) and cutter (yellow) starting in 2009 and moving right toward 2011. You should be able to notice a discernible difference in his pitch location in 2011 compared to 2009 and 2010. Look specifically at how his pitch location has trended toward the middle of the plate and up toward the left-handed batter’s box (as if looking from the catcher’s perspective).
(Images via TexasLeaguers. Click on the thumbnail for the full image.)
The good thing about problems with location is that they can be fixed. Whether it’s mechanics or mental, it’s something that can be worked on in the offseason and spring training. The pure stuff still seems to be there, especially since the whiff rates on his fastball, cutter and changeup stayed consistent.
Even though 2011 was not the season most expected out of Lester, it was still a highly successful one overall. He posted 3.7 fWAR, which ranked him as one of the top 25 pitchers in baseball. The bottom line is that the soon-to-be 28-year-old lefty still has the ability to become a true ace with a repertoire that generates swings and misses and keeps the ball on the ground around 50 percent of the time. If he can take a step forward with his command, there is no doubt in my mind that he can become a Cy Young contender in 2012.