Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have seen their fastball velocity dip a bit early in the 2012 season. This dip in velocity is but one of the factors that has led to some four-plus ERAs from the team’s top two hurlers. Pitchers lose velocity, it’s just part of the process, as arms can’t stay young forever. However, the question then becomes: Can a pitcher adjust without his best fastball? In the case of Lester and Beckett, the results might be slow, but the process of adjustment is in place.
Lester’s velocity began to drop last season, as his average fastball went from 93.5 mph to 92.6, about a one mph drop. Along with the drop in velocity came a rise in hit rate and home runs allowed per nine. In 2010, Lester started to rely heavily on his cutter and sinker, using the cutter about 15-percent of the time in 2009 and upping that usage to over 21-percent in 2010. According to pitch f/x data, Lester had not thrown a sinker before the 2010 season. The additional use of those pitches resulted in an increase in ground ball rate, but by implementing the extra movement on his fastball he gave up some command in the process, adding about one walk per nine to his stats.
Also according to pitch f/x, Lester has yet to top 95 mph this season and his average velocity has dropped a bit more, down to 92.2 mph. Lester has tried to adjust, relying very heavily on the sinker (25.3 percent) and adding in more changeups as well (13.2 percent). Those adjustments haven’t works thus far, as Lester has seen a huge drop in his strikeout rate (down to about six Ks per nine) and an increase in walk rate (over four walks per nine). While Lester has gone through stretches in which he has battled his command and control before, he has always been able to maintain a high strikeout — or at least a league average strikeout rate — during those times.
All is not lost, however. Lester is stranding fewer runners than he normally does (about 10-percent less), which, once (if) he figures things out and gets more comfortable using his cutter, sinker and change more often, should rise and help bring his ERA and FIP trend down toward expected levels.
Beckett, on the other hand, has seen a much more drastic drop in velocity. Last season, Beckett’s average heater rang in at 93 mph. So far this season, he has been sitting at 91.5 mph, topping out at around 94. If this trend continues, it will mark the third straight season in which Beckett has seen a drop in fastball velocity. Over the last few seasons, Beckett has been mixing in more two-seamers and cutters, but with this latest drop in velocity, he has looked more toward the changeup than he has in recent years. At present, pitch f/x shows him throwing the change just over 21 percent of the time. Last season, Beckett used his change more often than he ever had before, throwing it 13.8 percent of the time. Unfortunately, the change has not been a very effective pitch for him this season, going from 7.5 wCH last season to -0.5 wCH early this season. The sample size is still too small to draw a concrete conclusion from, but one could guess that the drop fastball velocity has had a negative affect on the effectiveness of his changeup.
Like Lester, Beckett is not looking like the strikeout artist he was just a year ago.
Both of the Sox’ co-aces are performing well beneath expectations so far in 2012, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t striving to make positive adjustments. However, whether or not those adjustments work is a question that is yet to be answered, an answer that the fate of the 2012 Red Sox season could very well be gently teetering on.
P.S. This will be my last post as a weekly contributor to Fire Brand of the American League. My job working for a minor league baseball team is very rewarding, but also very demanding of my time and attention. I want to say thank you to everyone who has stopped by to read any of my work here on Fire Brand, left a comment, followed me on Twitter or contacted me through email — or all of thee above. This is a tremendous site with tremendous writers and I was extremely lucky and proud to be a part of it. I’ll still be around in the comments and on Twitter, so keep in touch.