Last night, Jon Lester labored.
That doesn’t always make for a bad game, mind you, as Lester did manage to get through five innings, allowing only two earned runs and four hits. Were it not for a fifth inning error, he might have even gone six innings.
But the whole night was a grind, perhaps typified best by a 10-pitch at bat against the opposing pitcher, Jeremy Hellickson, in the bottom of the second inning. In that at bat, Lester worked away-away-away, not quite getting calls off the edge of the plate, and yield foul ball after foul ball when Hellickson swung. That many foul balls against the opposing pitcher is sometimes suggestive that the best stuff or the best command (or both) is not there for the night.
Then again, Lester got double-digit whiffs in the game, and notched five strikeouts through his five innings. So maybe the stuff was fine.
In any case, Lester got through those five innings. Thus, we call it a successful grind.
Lester ultimately walked five in the game, however, which is extremely uncharacteristic for him. He hadn’t walked more than two in any other start this year, and you have to go all the way back to July 24 of last year to find a game in which he walked at least five.
The strike zone must have been unusually small, right? Or, as Joe Maddon put it after the game:
Maddon when asked about the zone tonight: "It wasn't a strike zone tonight, it was a ball zone."
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) May 3, 2017
Well, for what it’s worth, the PitchFX tracking system didn’t see it that way (via Brooks):
What I see in the chart there for Lester is what my eyes were seeing during the game: he was doing a pretty good job hitting his spot on the outer edge against righties, but he wasn’t getting any of the calls. And, to be fair, the pitches were legitimately off the plate. (Note: the tracking system broke for a period of time in the 4th inning, so there are some pitches missing from the PitchFX data. I went back and checked the pitch locations in Gameday (not always quite as accurate in my experience), and I didn’t really see any close calls that inning.)
Are they pitches Lester is used to getting? Probably. Not only has he been paired for a long time with an extremely adept framer in David Ross, but Lester is also so good at hitting his spots that, when the catcher sets up on the outside corner and Lester hits the glove, he gets that call. Is this a matter of the Willson Contreras learning curve showing itself? Maybe something subtle in how he’s setting up?
Truly, I don’t know, and without waaaaaaay more data and visual review, I couldn’t say. And it very well may just have been that this was the zone the umpire was calling last night against righties. Look at the overall game map – nobody was consistently getting that call outside off the plate against righties:
(In fairness to Maddon, who said he was seeing the “ball zone” on both sides (Cubs.com), it did look like an especially small strike zone overall last night.)
So, at bottom, I don’t have any kind of grand conclusion on this one. To me, it looks like Lester wasn’t getting calls just off the plate, but the ump was mostly being consistent out there. That doesn’t mean Lester has serious command troubles or isn’t working well with Contreras or anything like that.
But, for Lester’s walks last night, it wasn’t really a strike zone issue.