Before Jon Lester’s start yesterday, Brett shared and discussed a recent article from Eno Sarris at FanGraphs that noted, among many things, the absence of up-and-in fastballs from Lester to right-handers in the second half of this season.
As it turns out, it may have been all of the above.
But this isn’t all bad news, because last night Lester addressed every single one of those issues, and no surprise, his results were quite good: 6.0 IP, 5H, 1ER, 2BB, 4Ks.
Let’s go one-by-one and see how and why the adjustments were made – starting with Sarris’ fastballs-up-and-in discovery.
After last night’s game, Sahadev Sharma talked to Willson Contreras, and the Cubs catcher got right into the topic. “That’s something that I noticed from watching video from last year,” Contreras said via The Athletic. “Even though he has a cutter, he throws a lot of four-seam in to righties. So that’s something that we weren’t doing enough this year, going away from righties instead of in. Today that was the plan, go in to righties with the four-seam and cutter. We did and we had success.”
You can see graphs of the the pitch locations in Sharma’s post, but Contreras went on to confirm that last night’s start was different from before and that the pitches worked better because they were setting righties up with fastballs in.
That Lester and Contreras were not only able to identify but also immediately correct such a big difference between this and last season is nothing short of fantastic. When good results are paired with an actual, measurable change in approach, you’re slightly more confident in the results going forward. (Also: kudos to Sarris for absolutely nailing that one.)
Of course, that wasn’t everything on the night. There’s also the matter of the fastball velocity and command. Let’s start with the former (using Brooks Baseball) by comparing velocity in each of his last two starts:
Four-Seamer Avg. Velo (Max)
September 20: 91.9 MPH (93.3 MPH)
September 25: 92.2 MPH (94.2 MPH)
Sinker Avg. Velo (Max)
September 20: 90.8 MPH (92.1 MPH)
September 25: 90.5 MPH (92.4 MPH)
Cutter Avg. Velo (Max)
September 20: 89.4 MPH (91.2 MPH)
September 25: 90.3 MPH (92.2 MPH)
For all three fastballs, Lester’s max velocity last night beat the start before it (his four-seamer and cutter both by 1 whole MPH). And in two out of three cases, his average fastball velocity was better last night, too.
It’s worth pointing out that even though he wasn’t able to improve upon his average sinker velocity last night, that may have been by design. The rate at which Lester was throwing his sinker out of the strike zone exploded in his last start, but he was able to reel it back in yesterday against the Cardinals:
Sinker Ball Rate
September 20: 61.1%
September 25: 57.1%
These aren’t HUGE differences, mind you (and not all of his pitches were commanded better), but velocity is only somewhat in a player’s control (physical limitations are physical limitations after all, and Lester is getting older), so this is good to see. And in any case, many tiny changes – a bit more command, a bit more velocity, a few more four-seamers in against righties – can amount to much better results overall.
It’s too early to say Lester has been “fixed” or anything in those kinds of dramatic terms, but I do think that if he was going to have a start with good results, this is the way you’d want to see it happen. Many of the things about which we were concerned before the game were addressed, and the results immediately improved. If Lester can keep up these peripheral improvements in his last start before the end of the regular season, I think we’d all feel much better about his role in the postseason rotation.