The last two seasons of Jon Lester‘s career have been on a steady to steep decline. Since the beginning of the 2012-2013 season Lester has 52 starts and has compiled a 17-19 W/L while sporting a rather unimpressive 4.78 ERA. So far this season he has already allowed 14 HR which was the total number of travel miles he allowed in his two most successful seasons of 2010 and 2008. The dingers are certainly not the only eye popping issues plaguing Lester this season. He has had issues with confidence, pitch selection, pitch location and the tweaking of mechanics and although I am no pitching guru in comparison to the Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves, I thought I would take a gander at all things related to Lester’s pitching performance this year with the hopes of finding some possible solutions or direct causes.
Let’s see if we can dissect some problem areas within the results before we move onto the pitching mechanics.
The first thing I noticed when researching Lester’s struggles are his awful numbers this season against Left Handed Batters. Generally speaking Left handed starting pitchers cause major problems for lefty hitters, but this hasn’t been the case at all this season for Lester. Here is a breakdown.
|vs RHB as LHP||207||4050||3594||398||909||183||13||87||374||838||2.24||.253||.327||.384||.711|
|vs LHB as LHP||201||1356||1232||142||301||59||4||37||98||321||3.28||.244||.305||.389||.693|
As we can see from the above table Lester’s numbers when facing lefties are right on par with what an MLB LHP should accomplish versus a lefty hitter. We know Lester has a Cutter (91MPH) and a Curveball (76 MPH) that he uses to complement his (93MPH) Fastball as well as a Sinker (92 MPH) and a Change-up (86 MPH).
We also must understand that the “counting stats” will favor the lefty hitters in the above table due to the sheer amount of at-bats, but it is the average stats that we should look at. The .244 AVG is lower, the OBP and the SO/BB have an advantage. The Slugging and AVG/HRs per AB are somewhat surprising to me here. Now let’s see if we break it down for just the 2013 season to see if that has influenced these numbers in any way.
|vs RHB as LHP||19||414||374||40||96||23||1||8||35||70||2.00||.257||.329||.388||.716|
|vs LHB as LHP||17||97||90||15||25||6||0||6||7||29||4.14||.278||.330||.544||.874|
Now we can see Lester’s struggles against left-handed hitters as a major red flag. While the SO/BB have actually improved all of the remaining offensive stats against Jon Lester have gotten worse. The 6 HRS in just 90 at-bats is brutal. The AVG of .278 is another number that is downright baffling so much so that the .278 would rank 3rd if it were part of the MLB team batting leaders.
Further illustrating Lester’s struggles against lefties is the following heat map of his pitch location on balls put in play.
That is an awful lot of pitches over the middle of the plate. How many times do you hear an analyst or a coach say “Location, Location, Location.” Truer words have never been spoken when looking at these locations. What gets me here is why a guy with a cutter is working away on lefties? Didn’t we jut see the man with the all-time greatest cutter receive a wooden chair from the Minnesota Twins made up entirely of wood from the broken bats he split with a cutter. How often do you see Mariano Rivera throw that cutter away from hitters? I’d say about 1-2% at best. The cutter is meant to break late and bust in on the hands , not be used as a faux slider. On the flip side of this is that Lester seems to get this busting in on the hands strategy versus righties. Perhaps there is something leading to Jon’s propensity for throwing to the 3rd base side of the plate, perhaps he is just flat-out stubborn. We’lll hit the mechanics a bit later.
Let’s move on. Next up are Lester’s Home/Road splits. More jaw-dropping is inevitable when looking at these stats.
I think it is pretty clear to say that a lot of Lester’s issues stem from his mental approach to the game. He has a clear lack of comfort pitching away from Fenway Park. Look at the HR stats away from the Fens!?! Fenway is a park that is normally a nuisance for LH Starters (see, Frank Viola, Joe Sambito, Casey Fossum etc) and Lester seems to have it neutralized yet when he travels away from the friendly confines he completely melts down.
Yet another table of stats further illustrating the parks giving him the most difficulties…
Those aren’t exactly HR friendly ballparks we are talking about there. Detroit certainly has a potent offense which is understood but the struggles in Seattle as well as on the road versus key division rivals is a serious problem. The walks and HR’s stand out as serious issues.
How can these issues be fixed? There have been quite a few reports in regards to mechanical adjustments but perhaps the mechanics aren’t the root of his problems as much as Lester’s moodiness on the mound causing changes in his mechanics. Here some proof to that.
Early in Spring Training Juan Nieves and John Farrell had Jon Lester working out some of the kinks that plagued his 2012-2013 season. Why work on Lester’s pace? It appeared that when Lester spent too much time breathing and over-thinking that he started to dwell on things such as missed calls on balls and strikes, he called off more pitches and began to miss more locations.
The early season results in April and the start of May gave the team and the fan base hope that the old Jon Lester was back in “Ace” form and then things started to unravel. This caused Nieves to go back to the mechanics again. This time they started working on mechanical changes in the hopes that Lester would stand “tall” on the mound. You may have noticed a change in the glove movement of Lester during his leg lift. Before, Lester would hold his glove hand high and then violently drop it down during his leg lift. This sometimes caused a rushed motion and left his throwing arm lagging behind which left pitches out over the middle of the plate as well as causing unrepeatable mechanics. Over the last two starts Lester has been keeping his glove hand closer to his body and has eliminated the Dominique Wilkins-like pump in his wind-up, however the results have been mixed.
Jon Lester is certainly athletic enough to repeat his mechanics. He has proper movement starting with the leading of his back pocket followed by his front hip before his leg drops and the rest of his body follows just fine. His head stays in the middle of his body as it should but his motion doesn’t repeat itself as it should. This is where his mental approach becomes the bain of his existence.
When Lester gets in a jam or feels like he is getting the short end on calls by the home plate umpire he’s starts pressing. When he presses he slouches again and tries getting more leg drive and power on all of his pitches. The end result of this slouching has flattened out a lot of his pitches and prevents Lester from getting that downhill movement that is key to a pitchers success. This has also caused issues with his control on the arm-side of the plate which is inside on left handed hitters and outside against a righty. This has been especially prevalent on his Fastball, Change-up, Sinker and Cutter.
Here is another chart illustrating the loss of vertical or downward movement on Lester’s pitches. Notice the decrease since his red hot start in April.
First we must understand that “ZERO” on the above charts would be the movement if gravity were taken out of the equation just so you can understand why a curveball has a negative number and the other pitches have positive numbers.
If you look at the figures you will clearly see that Lester has gradually lost a significant amount of movement on all of his pitches excluding the curveball. The remainder of his pitches which all use more backspin have lost vertical movement. Backspin creates velocity and upward movement on a pitch. The reason why he has lost this movement is because he has seen a 1 MPH gain on all of his pitch velocities again excluding the curveball.
His 4 -seamer has risen from 93.34 MPH to 94 MPH. The Sinker has risen in MPH from 91 MPH all the way up to 93.08 MPH, the Change-up from 85.27 MPH to 86.41, and the Cutter has actually stayed the same although a Cutter moves more on a horizontal axis which is why there is little vertical change up until his last two starts.
So you see it isn’t so much Lester’s mechanics as a whole as it is his desire to throw harder when he struggles. When Lester is bearing downt his pitches land over the middle to left-handed hitters as can be seen by the above graph as well as to rightie to a lesser degree. It has caused a spike in his MPH which appears to be the cause of a loss of break on his pitches on a downward plain thus making them appear flat to a hitter’s eye.
It is pretty safe to say if you watch a Jon Lester start you rarely if at all see him smile. The constant tweaking of his mechanics seems to have his head all messed up when instead the easiest fix may be saying something funny to him on a mound visit or perhaps bringing in some kind of Yoga or Tai Chi type breathing exercises. It’s tough to say what will help him relax. I’m sure the fact that he has pitched terribly over the last two years when the Red Sox hold a club option at $13 million has weighed heavily on his mind. Don’t expect Lester to admit to that as evidenced by his comments in March, but somehow the team needs to find a way to get this kid to relax and try having some fun. Maybe Jonny Gomes should start making the mound visits when Lester is in trouble from here on out.
In conclusion I would actually let Jon Lester be when it comes to the mechanical side of things. Keep his head clear and only make visits when he’s pressing. In between games keep him loose, maybe sacrifice a live chicken ala the movie Major League. Anything but cloud his mind with more things to think about.
What say you? Would you continue with the tweaks? If so, let me know what you have noticed.