Jon Lester is the undisputed ace of the Cubs’ staff, but that doesn’t mean he’s infallible. Far from it, actually, as the last handful of starts will tell you. He’s allowed three or more earned runs in four of his last five outings, including an ugly eight-spot against St. Louis that featured five walks and two homers.
It hasn’t all been rough, as evidenced by a six-inning gem against the Diamondbacks in which Lester surrendered a single run (solo homer) while striking out seven and walking none. He really had the changeup working in that one, generating higher relative value (10.26 runs/100 pitches) with that pitch than he has in any game this season. And that came after he got season-low production (-49.28) from it in the previous game.
The issue seems to be consistency, something Lester addressed with Waddle and Silvy on ESPN 1000 Thursday afternoon.
“Before the break, I feel like I threw the ball a lot better than that San Diego start said,” Lester said. “As far as the line, I felt really good. I’ve been trying to make some mechanical adjustments and they’ve clicked at times and other times they haven’t.”
Hearing about any kind of tweaks to a pitcher’s mechanics might gets some folks’ hackles up a little bit, especially when it’s someone with as much experience as Lester. But that presupposes these guys are automatons that just need a new battery every once in a while. Unless, of course, they employ a personal catcher and don’t want to change batteries.
Over the course of the season, various factors can influence a pitcher’s motion. Whether it’s the weather, general fatigue, or perhaps the slightest twinge somewhere in his kinetic chain, he might shift ever so slightly this way or that to find the most comfortable slot. That could even be as simple as the grip or finger pressure on various pitches.
“Obviously that one right before the break, it wasn’t good,” Lester said of his performance in what was actually his only win in the last five games. “And then this last one the other night wasn’t good. We’re trying to piece it together and get these things locked in and tightened up.
“I feel good with it, bullpen was good today, and now it’s just a matter of going back out there and just trusting that I’ve made the adjustment and working on executing those pitches.”
Lester didn’t share exactly what he’s trying to change, so we may just have to wait for Jim Hickey’s weekly spot on Mully and Haugh to get the real skinny. I’d love to tell you I had spotted something either live or in the stats, a tell as to what Lester is trying to lock in and tighten up. But alas, I keep failing the amateur scouting exam.
For instance, one of the essay questions presents the below chart of Lester’s game-by-game vertical release points and asks you discern its importance relative to Lester’s performance.
All I can come up with is that he looks a little less tunnel-y over those last few starts. Lester is well renowned for his near-identical release points, throwing nearly every pitch from nearly the same spot so that they’d create something of a tunnel when overlaid. Such deception affords hitters that much less time to determine what’s coming.
The exception to that is quite clearly the curveball, which requires a little more over-the-top motion. But if you look closely at the chart you’ll notice that the differences in the release points of his other offerings are basically indiscernible in most starts. That doesn’t seem to be as much the case here lately, so perhaps there’s a mechanical reason for it.
Whether that’s the case at all and what the culprit might be, however, is something only Lester could tell us for sure. Or, you know, Hickey. Or Joe Maddon. And legions of amateur pitching coaches on Twitter and Facebook. The only thing I can say definitively is that Lester doesn’t care what the analytic BS has to say about any of it.
And all that really matters is that he dials in the changes he’s working on and gets to a point where they’re effective and repeatable. Also effective. And repeatable.