What’s wrong with Jon Lester?

“How could you do this to me…AGAIN!!!” / US PRESSWIRE

Here’s a very quick look at some statistical explanations for why Jon Lester‘s 2012 season isn’t going so well.

First, here’s a look at his basic numbers. Lester posted 4 strong seasons from 2008 to 2011. Here’s a quick comparison of some stats:

Stat     2008-11     2012
K/9       8.7         7.6
H/9       8.0        10.0
WHIP      1.241       1.393
BB/9      3.2         2.6
HR/9      0.8         0.9

With fewer strikeouts and walks (and a similar rate of homers), batters against Lester are putting more balls in play. We’ll get to the “why” of that in a minute, but let’s see what the repercussions are.

Over 2008-2011, with runners in scoring position, Lester allowed a line of .225/.300/.351. So far in 2012, that same line is .267/.322/.543. That’s a lot more hits, and a lot more for extra bases.

Lester’s overall BAbip (batting average on balls put in play) is up this year, at .331 compared to .298 over the 08-11 period. With runners in scoring position, over 08-11, the BAbip was .270. This year in those situations, it’s .265, very slightly better.

So it would seem that Lester’s allowing more balls to be put in play, which even with an identical BAbip would mean more hits, and especially without runners in scoring position he’s allowing a lot more base knocks.

For the why, part, we can get a clue from Fangraph’s PitchFX data. Lester’s throwing a ton of sinkers this year, a pitch he started throwing only in 2010 and that he’s throwing about twice more often in 2012 than in the 2 years prior. Those pitches primarily used to be cut fastballs or straightup fastballs. His fastball, too, has lost some pep. At its peak in 2008-2009, his fastball averaged 93.5 MPH; in 2012 it’s down to 92.2 MPH.

What exactly is going on? I’d have to dig deeper to know for sure, but it’s clear that he’s not the same guy he was, and it’s not all down to bad luck.


13 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Jon Lester?

  1. nice analysis, and picture, Andy. Lester’s pitching does seem a cause for worry this year, but at least he appears to be in better physical shape, compared to last summer when he seemed to have gained quite a bit of weight (long before late season set in, so I don’t mean to make any connection whatsoever with the infamous Red Sox 2011 narrative).

    other than that I can’t even really bear to think about Red Sox starting pitching at all. I’m not even sure if there are any bright sides to it either, except that the starters all have more talent than they’re showing.

  2. He enjoyed 5.4 runs per game of support for his career through last season.
    This year it is 4.0

    The psychological factor of pitching with a lead vs. tighter games could play some small part.

    That and the fact that NO Red Sox starter has been consistently effective.
    Starters seem to feed off of each other, wanting to follow up teammates’ good performances with one of their own, not wanting to be the guy to end a streak.

    The stats that really seem inverted, though, are his BB% and XBH%

    Going into this year he was:
    9.0% BB
    6.5% XBH

    In 2012 he is:
    6.6% BB
    9.4% XBH

    Maybe he is TOO confident in his stuff, or pressing to not allow baserunners because he is pitching in closer games. Whereas before he would nibble with 3 balls and not sweat a walk, perhaps he is challenging hitters more with 3-balls…

    Career with three balls (including 2012)
    .252 .561 .446 1.008

    .323 .563 .613 1.175

    So, there’s something there, albeit small sample:
    20 for 62

    1. Good follow-up, Voomo.

      “Starters seem to feed off of each other”
      I’m not saying they don’t, and we certainly hear this from announcers when a rotation is going well. I imagine the Tigers announcers said something along those lines today, when Rick Porcello logged the team’s 4th straight 70+ Game Score (totaling 31 IP and 5 runs).

      But has anyone actually measured an effect?

      1. To get that study, ou’d have to find someone willing to do the huge amount of legwork that that also considers that there might be the remotest of possibilities that this is true. I doubt you’ll find that person

        1. Agreed. I almost think the opposite would be true. If a starter or two in a row throws a really good game and goes deep, the bullpen is rested, making it more likely that the next starter gets pulled a bit more quickly.

          1. Andy (In lieu of JA—on vacation):

            Synergy is probably impossible to measure, but anyone who doesn’t think it exists in some form in sports hasn’t been paying attention. I doubt the “Starters seem to feed off each other” argument, but players on teams regularly draw something from the performance of teammates to create unlikely rallies and winning streaks, and there’s also a negative synergy—for want of an antonym—that inspires dissolution. Take the Red Sox meltdown at the end of last season. Please.

  3. Andy is likely right that it’s not all down to bad luck. But it seems a lot of it is. His FIP is better than it was last season, and his SIERA is pretty close. His ERA, of course, is much worse.

    The biggest difference I can see is his change in pitch selection. Why would a successful pitcher suddenly throw so many more sinkers and so many fewer cutters? Perhaps he’s hiding an injury? But what kind of injury? While his fastball velocity is down from its peak, it’s only down from 92.8 last season to 92.6 this. Hmm, maybe it’s not an injury.

    There are two other stats of note that others can examine more closely if they so choose. Lester’s line drive percentage has increased from 15.9 to 23.5, and his percentage of infield hits has gone from 5.7 to 9.8 from 2011 to 2012. The first seems like it’s within his control to a degree, but the second likely isn’t.

    All of which is to say that I’m not sure.

    1. An injury, or an attempt to prevent a further/recurring/predicted injury, is certainly the thing that sprung to my mind as far as why he’d change his pitch selection so much. Seems odd to me. I mean–the idea that he added a sinker makes sense, but why he’s throwing it so much more when it wasn’t seminal to his success in 2010 and 2011 is beyond me.

  4. Lester has clearly lost command. Not control but command. Pitches are in the zone (BB rate is fine) but they are hittable strikes (LD rate, BABIP, and oppISO all up significantly).

    Four possible explanations:
    1) Bad luck (seems unlikely since results are skewed toward xBHs)
    2) Lack of focus (suggested sudden command problems but could be contraindicated by slightly improved performance with ROB)
    3) Injury (many injuries lead to diminished command and velocity)
    4) New pitching coach Bob McClure (perhaps McClure is telling him to throw more sinkers)

    This last point is potentially telling for me. If Sox pitchers are pitching to contact more than in 2011, this would suggest a change in team wide approach. In addition it might explain why Lester’s control is better but his command is poor.

    Also, who the heck thought it was smart to hit a former ROYALS pitching coach???

    One other sub-possibility is that Lester is injured, and that’s why he’s relying on the sinker more. Could be that it is easier to throw

  5. One thing’s certain: Lester didn’t get it fixed yet. He just matched his career worst by allowing 9 runs, in just the first 2 innings.

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