During the fourth inning of Jon Lester‘s start on Monday night, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe offered up this bit of analysis following a two-out, two-strike home run Lester allowed to Danny Valencia.
“Lester has to be better than that on 2-strike pitches. Speaks to his lack of focus and/or preparation.”
While Abraham’s hypothesis is certainly plausible, there’s no way for him to prove his point. Lester is very well known for being a very fiery, focused competitor. Sadly, his reputation was tainted in the wake of the chicken-and-beer scandal that rocked Red Sox Nation last fall. Although I can’t say to what extent, Abraham’s comments reflect the general feeling that the lefty is not as focused as we’d originally thought.
As I’ve mentioned several times in the past, I don’t subscribe to theories involving chicken-and-beer or armchair pyschology. I respect Mr. Abraham a great deal, and he’s certainly welcome to his opinion. Still, neither of us are psychologists, and neither of us have a first hand account of his mental state. To speculate seems like a fools errand. Personally, I’d rather focus on Lester’s on field performance to find out what’s wrong with the Red Sox ace.
Let’s take a look at Lester’s on field performance to see if we can figure out what’s been plaguing him this season.
The biggest problem with Lester so far this season has been his inability to consistently command his pitches. Let’s start with his walk totals. Through 24 innings, he’s walked 12.9% of the batters he’s faced, which ranks him as 99th out of 106 qualifying pitchers. Making matters worse is he isn’t striking out nearly enough batters to counteract the free passes he’s allowing. The additional contact he’s allowing (in lieu of strikeouts), increases the likelihood of not only allowing a hit, but also giving up a run. In a way, his poor command creates a cycle that continues to feed off itself once it’s initiated.
The two pitches Lester has struggled most to command this season are his curveball and changeup. When both pitches are on, they can be very effective. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case this season. To get a clear view of Lester’s command issues with his secondary pitches, let’s take a look at the chart below.
*Data compliments of Brooks Baseball. CU = curveball; CH = change-up
The most startling differences between 2010/2011 and 2012 can be found in the Ball% and Swing% categories. As Lester has chosen to nibble around the edges more rather than attack the strike zone, hitters have started laying off his secondary pitches in hopes of working the count in their favor. So far, it’s worked, as umpires are forced to make the ball/strike call. Interestingly enough, Lester’s recieved more called balls and called strikes as a result. While more called strikes might seem like a good thing, they actually force a pitcher with poor command to work harder. Called strikes rarely result in strikeouts, and they never result in a hitter making contact. Rather than experiencing shorter plate appearances and innings, guys like Lester are forced to labor through arduous scenarios where they’re more likely to allow runs. Further complicating matters for Lester is that hitters are able to sit on either his four-seamer (FF) or cutter (FC) when he gets to two and three ball counts. When the hitter can anticipate which pitch is coming, he’s in a better position to take advantage of the situation.
Going forward, Lester needs to focus on attacking the strike zone, putting himself in favorable counts, and using his wide array of pitches to induce whiffs and coax weak ground balls. If can make the adjustment, he’ll go a long way toward asserting himself as one of baseball’s true aces. If he can’t and he continues to nibble along the edges of the zone, it’s going to be frustrating season for both he and the Red Sox.