With one out in the bottom of the 1st Wednesday night, Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada saw five straight Jon Lester fastballs to open his at-bat. Tejada took the first two for balls, then fell to an even count after a couple of fouls and a whiff. Then Lester brought a cutter that Tejada battled off. It was all just a setup for the curve that rolled up at 77 mph, 11 ticks below any of the previous pitches. The hitter didn’t stand a chance.
In all, four Mets fell victim to Lester’s bender, leading Len Kasper to remark at one point during the broadcast about the high swing-and-miss rate of the pitch and the fact that Joe Maddon has been trying to get his lefty ace to use it more often. Sure enough, all four curveball victims swung their way to outs.
For the record, the remaining 3 strikeouts Lester produced came on the cutter, and two of those K’s were backwards.
Just prior to tuning in to the Cubs game, I had flipped over to CSN Chicago to catch a bit of the inimitable Sahadev Sharma talking about Lester’s up-and-down performance and the need for the pitcher to command his fastball on the corners to set up his other pitches. Basically, he needs to nibble a bit to set up the out pitches.
Sure enough, Lester used the fastball to set the tone early. Of the 7 at-bats that resulted in K’s, 6 opened with a 4-seamer, the first four of which were taken for balls. Lester required 20 pitches over the course of those first four K’s, throwing 11 fastballs in that stretch. While the sample size is small, that 55% usage rate closely mirrors his season average of 53.2%.
As the game wore on, however, Lester had already established the fastball and was able to use it a little bit less, to the tune of 5/17 pitches in the three remaining at-bats that ended in K’s. But where he had started each of his first four victims off with balls, the final three saw first-pitch strikes, the third of which actually came on a cutter.
This was just one game though, so I wanted to pull some data to have a look at how Lester has used his pitches and what kinds of results he’s gotten from the past few seasons as compared to this year with the Cubs. I wanted to see whether Kasper was right and if perhaps Lester could benefit from leaning more heavily on the curve or another pitch.
First, let’s take a look at pitch usage, with the first chart showing the last several seasons combined and the second illustrating this season specifically.
We can see right away that the fastball and cutter stand alone at the top of Lester’s repertoire, but it looks as though the curve and change might be eating into that a little bit. There’s some interesting data on the changeup specifically, as it seems to have completely fallen out of favor after 2013, but that’s another story for another time.
Okay, so now let’s take a look at what Len was talking about, which is the tendency for hitters to swing and miss. Again, the first chart is the last several years and the second focuses on this season.
While the fastball, cutter, and sinker all seem to be trending around the 10% level, we can see some real swing-and-miss tendencies on the curve and the change. The change in particular has be skyrocketing, up nearly 8.5% over the past few seasons. But we can see a big jump in the curve’s efficacy as well; it looks to have really become an out pitch after the 2013 season.
So why isn’t Lester using these two pitches more, you might ask? I think you know the drill by now, so check out these batting average against numbers.
As Sharma had mentioned while talking with David Kaplan about Lester’s performance, the filthy rich pitcher was anything but with his pitching in April and June. Just look at how the BAA number plummeted in May and then spiked back up last month. What’s really troublesome is that the fastball continued to climb, making it harder to effectively set up the other pitches.
But look at that blue line in both illustrations above; that’s the changeup that looks like sex in the previous section. While it dipped back below .300 in June, that pitch was being absolutely raked in May. Not exactly a confidence booster when guys are getting hits half the time you throw a given pitch. But hey, they’re missing it 20% of the time.
Batting average against the curveball has been going up as well, and is trending back toward pre-2014 levels, but the pitch is still pretty clearly Lester’s best when it comes to getting strikes and avoiding hits. Based on the evidence I’m seeing, it does appear as though Maddon is right to want Lester to throw that pitch more often.
But again, it does no good to throw more curves — changeups too, for that matter — if he isn’t using the fastball to effectively set them up. Wednesday’s game in New York provided a nice blueprint for how Lester needs to work in order to be effective: fastballs early to soften hitters up, curves and cutters to finish them off.
And speaking of blueprints, Lester might do well to pay attention to how his Mets counterpart has maintained his career. No, I don’t mean PED’s; Bartolo Colon has gone from a power pitcher who relied almost solely on his four-seamer (76.8% in 2008) to a guy who’s working with a dirty little two-seam fastball that he runs up there in the mid-to-high-80’s on over 55% of his offerings.
I’d advise Lester to push himself back from the table a bit more often than Colon has though. I mean, it’s worked well for him, but I think we’re all familiar with the cautionary tale of Rich “El Guapo” Garces.