Jon Lester’s record may stand at 0-1 after his first start of the season, but don’t let that fool you—the left-hander was very much the same pitcher who helped lead the Red Sox to the World Series last October. In fact, the Red Sox themselves played much the same type of game against the Orioles on Monday that led to their success in 2013. They got good pitching from Lester (7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, and 8 K), they knocked the opposing starter out of the game early (Chris Tillman lasted just five innings), and they reached base often, getting nine hits and drawing three walks.
The real culprit was the club’s 0-10 mark with runners in scoring position, something ESPN’s Jeremy Lundblad noted the Red Sox did only once all of last season. Simply put, the Red Sox will win far more games than they lose this year playing like that.
Even more encouraging was Lester’s performance. The left-hander held a strong Orioles lineup to just one extra-base hit (Nelson Cruz’s game-winning home run) and looked like the dominant ace who carried the Red Sox throughout last year’s postseason. In many ways, Lester’s outing highlighted the changes in approach that led to his resurgence during the second half of 2013.
On Monday against the Orioles, Lester used a fastball-heavy arsenal to attack the Baltimore lineup, using his four-seame and cutter on both sides of the plate to get ahead and maintain the upper hand in as many at-bats as possible. Out of his 104 pitches, he threw just 12 offspeed pitches (seven changeups and five curveballs), turning instead to his fastball or cutter 88% of the time, according to Brooks Baseball.
Such an aggressive and simplified pitch mix is reminiscent of the strategy Lester employed during the second half of last season in which the 30-year-old posted 2.57 ERA and held opponents to a .241/.291/.351 line in 87.2 innings pitched. This success came off the back of an arduous first half where Lester compiled a 4.58 ERA and allowed a .260/.329/.416 mark against opposing batters.
The biggest change came in Lester’s pitch usage, as he raised the amount of four-seam fastballs he threw from 41% in the first half of 2013 to 49% in the second half, per Brooks Baseball. As a result, his changeup, curveball, and cutter usage all dropped, with Lester choosing instead to attack both sides of the plate with his fastball. In fact, Lester hadn’t used his fastball with such frequency since the 2007 season when none other than John Farrell was his pitching coach.
As the zone charts below show, Lester’s fastball location did subtly change from the first part of 2013 to the second. He simply threw more fastballs in and around the strike zone and also shifted the pitch away to right-handed batters more frequently, challenging them to catch up with his heat on the outer half.
The same trend also continued with his cutter, as Lester became less predictable with the location of the offering. Instead of always pounding righties inside with his cutter, Lester used the pitch on the outer half to righties (and inner half to lefties), a location he used to frequent success against the likes of Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina during last year’s World Series.
As this last chart (which show the batting average allowed on Lester’s cutter and fastball during the second half of 2013) demonstrates, opposing batters found little success against either the cutter or fastball, especially on much of the outer half:
Lester has clearly found a strategy that works, and it was on display once again versus the Orioles on Monday. In many ways, Lester has found success through the power of a simplified approach and a newfound ability to get ahead with his harder offerings.
Although the Red Sox and Lester have decided to cut off extension talks for the time being, the changes the left-hander has been able to make and succeed with should only encourage Ben Cherington to lock up Lester well into the future. He is now 30 years old, which is always an ominous age for any pitcher seeking a long-term contract. Lester’s velocity increased during the 2013 campaign, however, and that should spell any fears over an imminent decline for the left-hander. He has also been among the most durable starters in the majors throughout his career, tossing at least 190 innings in every season dating back to 2007.
All of this should reassure Cherington in his talks with Lester. The amount of money the Red Sox choose to devote to their long-time ace is another matter, of course, but the team can at least be confident that Lester will be a highly effective starter over the next couple of seasons.
For now, and moving forward, Lester will remain the ace of the Red Sox staff.