I missed almost the entirety of Jon Lester’s Opening Day start yesterday thanks to troubles, but it’s hard to judge from high up in the seats anyway. I can say for sure that a 3.1-inning, 3-walk, 4-run (3-ER) debut was not what he was looking for when he landed the Opening Day assignment at the front of a deep and talented rotation.
So what exactly happened?
Lester says it was a pretty simple lack of command on his breaking pitches and his cutter (Cubs.com): “Guys I got ahead of, I didn’t put them away. Guys I got behind, I couldn’t get back ahead. I really had no feel for the breaking ball. Good cutters that I did throw, they were balls out of the hand. An adjustment has to be made, and we’ll make it.”
Maybe it’s that simple, and an inning that got away from him – in part due to some rough defense in left field – cut his day short.
It’s worth pointing out that Lester’s velocity was down yesterday, according to Brooks, which logged his four-seamer at just 90.3 mph on average, his sinker at 89.7 mph, and his cutter at 87.6 mph. Last year, those pitches averaged 91.8, 90.6, and 88.1, respectively. Historically, pitchers tend to ramp up a bit as the summer approaches, so this isn’t necessarily a freakout moment, but that’s a 2 mph drop on his four-seamer from where was in his season opener last year. It’ll be something to watch as Lester has already been pitching through a velocity drop as he has into his mid-30s, and it was something we were already concerned about last year.
I saw a lot of people grousing about the strike zone, so I decided to take a look at that aspect, and it certainly was a very small zone (Brooks):
But was Lester disproportionately impacted? Well, I count four balls that were in the strike zone, and another one that was pretty close. That close one preceded a walk that preceded the run-scoring single in the first, but the other missed strikes generally didn’t come during at bats where damage later came.
So, like I said, it was kinda just a small zone all day, and that could have impacted how Lester pitched, but the actual lost strikes themselves didn’t necessarily cause the problems. Jose Urena was obviously affected by the zone, too, you’ll note.
The combined impact of velocity down a bit, a small strike zone (hitter’s counts + forced more into the zone), and pitches not moving like he wanted them to and boom, you’ve got the recipe for a very short start. The good news is that only five of the fifteen balls in play against Lester were 95 mph or greater in exit velocity and he registered a mere 20% hard contact rate, so it’s not like he was getting absolutely rocked.
Hopefully it was just one of those starts that happens sometimes.