What to Do With Daisuke, The Transformation of Lester

MLB Florida Marlins vs Boston Red Sox

What to Do With Daisuke?

As the Boston Red Sox get set for their weekend series against Tampa Bay, embattled starter Daisuke Matsuzaka gets prepared for a return to the Red Sox rotation.

Under any normal circumstances, the answer would be simple: bench him.

But these are not normal circumstances.

The dream of sending Daisuke to the pine, alive and kickin’ since his horrifying yet successful 2008, is D.O.A. due to the size of his contract. Players who earn as much as Dice does will always get their playing time. That’s just the way it is. The team has invested so much in him that they have to give him every opportunity to succeed.

2009 could have been the season where Walksuzaka stopped giving Boston fans coronaries – the additional rotation options could have pushed the free pass machine out the door.

It was not in the cards, however, as both Brad Penny and John Smoltz flared out. Had either one been successful, a Wakefield-Buchholz-Penny/Smoltz back end could probably have returned the rotten goods back across the Pacific. Unfortunately, they will have to stay.

Second – and this has really been the theme of the season – is that there is just no one left to replace him.

I’ll spare the reading public the agony of rehashing the team’s rotation problems this year. Everyone knows what’s been going on. No one else in the New England area needs to bash in their keyboard or remote again when reminded of every failed rotation option this season. Bowden is the only bullet left and even he has struggled.

While Daisuke is a decent rotation option in most years – decent being a 4th option on a playoff staff – he is better suited for the bullpen when he returns. His stuff matches up well with a good relief arm: a 91 mph fastball this season that sits at 92 when he’s healthy, good slider and cutter, and mixes in a change- up.

More importantly, he gets tons of strikeouts, which could improve when he moves to the pen. The walks? Yeah, they’re unfortunate, but when you need a strikeout in a critical situation, you can do a lot worse, especially when trying to save Wagner and Papelbon for the later innings.

Is it unfair to be this down on Daisuke? Probably. In the grand scheme of things, he is an average starter and average is always an asset. Still, when a “national treasure” lands on your team, you expect a little more. And as they say, the first rule of not being disappointed is to lower your expectations. Maybe we shouldn’t expect so much.

Dice completed his rehab last night for Salem in A-ball, throwing 6.2 innings, with seven strikeouts against just one walk in 89 pitches. He could return on the 15th, when the Sox open their series against the California Angles in Boston.

Here’s to Dice-K “bringing it” like he did in ’07, his best while tenured with the Sox. A league average starter would do wonders for the beleaguered pitching staff.

Beckett-Lester-Wakefield-Buchholz-VINTAGE Dice through September? Quite the setup. Texas should be shaking in their boots.

The New Lester

Jon Lester has transformed himself as a pitcher in 2009. Since Lester returned from cancer treatments in 2007, he has had a steady rise back to the top. His stuff has improved dramatically since then – his velocity being the primary benefactor.

Suffice it to say, his development into one of the league’s best starters is mostly due to his incredible strikeout rate. But what about his performance has changed to cause this improvement?

The ERA may be better in 2008, but there is no doubt that he is a far superior pitcher in 2009. His K/9 has improved from a pedestrian 6.50 in 2008 to an outlandish 10.16. His groundball rate has regressed somewhat since last year, falling from 1.49 GB:FB to 1.36. Surprisingly, his walks per nine have remained just about the same (2.82 BB/9 in ’08, 2.84 in ’09).

The stabilization of his walk rate is somewhat surprising, as lots of pitchers see increases in their strikeout rates coincide with increases in walks. The reasoning is pretty simple: if batters are making contact with fewer pitches, they are putting fewer in play, ending the at-bat later. Although these pitches become strikes, the at-bat stays alive longer, leaving the possibility of a walk open.

Most pundits point to his increased fastball velocity as the primary reason in his improvement. However, this seems like an oversimplification of the matter.

Sure Lester’s velocity has improved substantially in years past. Since his return in 2007, a combination of physical growth and recovery from treatments have seen his fastball velocity increase from about 90 mph in 2007 to 92 in 2008, then 93-94 mph in 2009. His curve and cutter have seen substantial increases in velocity as well.

Not much else has changed with Lester’s indicators. In some ways, hitters have actually adjusted to his approach from 2008, as they are laying off pitches out of the zone more this season and are swinging less, anticipating Lester’s bait pitches and wisely laying off.

However, Lester is getting tons of swings and misses on strike two with his curveball.

This pitch has been incredible for him this season. When the hitters start expanding the zone, waiting for that hard fastball, they overcommit and end up chasing the curve in the dirt. Hitters have been unable to make contact with the pitch outside the zone this season, leading to more swings and misses and more Ks.

What really amazed me about his performance this season was watching him during his phenomenal three-start stretch between May 31st and July 12th where he struck out 34 batters in 22 innings. It wasn’t him blowing away hitters with the high fastball or all the curves in the dirt. He was spotting the backdoor curve against right handers all night, particularly in the start against Texas on the 6th, when he threw a complete game, 11 K, 1 BB, 2 hitter.

When you can get ahead in the count with a curveball on the outside, the offense is going to have a long night. For three starts in late May and early June, they did. Lester couldn’t be touched.