The Ballad of Jon Lester: Start 27

This start as a song: My Pal Foot Foot – The Shaggs’ art resembles music just enough to be classified as such. At first blush this loosely composed collection of sounds is grating on the ears almost to the point of being offensive, but then you hear the undercurrent of what’s going on and realize that there’s some evidence (but not much) of competence.

And so it went for Lester, who ended the night with a 5 IP/ 5 H/ 2 R/ 2 ER/ 2 BB/ 3 SO night. The Cubs lefty has had an every other month kind of season. Lester famously struggled in April before righting the ship in May. He posted a 5.74 ERA in June then posted a 1.66 ERA with a 0.76 WHIP in July. In August his ERA was back over four and he’s been on the snide since then.

This start wasn’t masterful by any means. His command was spotty, he was losing his composure on the mound a little, and much like a Lupe Fiasco album, he didn’t go as deep as you wanted him to, but those things tend to not matter when your offense puts up eight runs in the fifth inning.

Lester’s usually trusty curve-cutter combination wasn’t very effective Friday. On the season, Lester generates a 19.54 Whiff% on his curve and a 13.46 on his cutter. Lester only got three swings and misses with both pitches total, generating a 7.1 Whiff% on his curve and an 8.7 Whiff% with his cutter.

He wasn’t economical with his pitches either. Lester threw 25 pitches in the second inning and 20 more in the fourth. There wasn’t a truly easy inning mixed in there at all for the lefty as he battled his command all start.

Let’s talk about that Tomas Plate Appearance

The issue isn’t so much that there isn’t anything in the strike zone. With 17 walks in 389 plate appearances this year, Tomas has proven to be a liberal swinger when it comes to his approach. You can feed him some stuff off the plate and generate swings. The issue is that after strike one, nothing is really close. Tomas did foul off a pitch that was way in on his hands, but really there’s nothing here that’s compelling to swing at. The stolen bases gets talked about a lot as a reason for Lester’s struggles, but that glosses over what can be an issue when it’s his turn. The command can get loose at times, and when it does, Lester can find himself pitching in spots with a lot of runners on. That’s not ideal.

Let’s talk sequencing

So we can tabulate what pitches Lester generates the most swings and misses on. We can also tabulate how well Lester is at getting strikeouts on certain pitches. But one of the major pieces of information that we’re still missing is what sequence of events led to the strikeout. Every plate appearance has a story. Sometimes that story is a one-pitch pulp comic and other times it can be a 10-pitch odyssey with twists, turns, trials, and tribulations. It’s something that I pay close attention to in the minors because any deviation from fastball-change is notable in Low-A. Pitchability doesn’t usually show itself until the majors, so it’s important to note who knows how to pitch and who doesn’t.

Let’s look at Lester’s strikeouts and examine his potential thought process here.

Welington Castillo – Top of the 2nd, none on, none out, strikeout looking

Pitch Statistics as coded by the Automatic MLBAM Gameday Algorithm
Pitch Type Velo (Max) H-Break V-Break Count Strikes / % Swings / % Whiffs / % BIP (No Out) SNIPs / % LWTS
FF (Four-seam Fastball) 92.6 (92.7) 5.75 9.13 3 3 / 100.0% 0 / 0.0% 0 / 0.0% 0 (0) 3 / 100.0% -1.91
CU (Curveball) 76.4 (76.4) -4.07 -2.42 1 0 / 0.0% 0 / 0.0% 0 / 0.0% 0 (0) 0 / 0.0% 0.16
FC (Cutter) 88.6 (88.6) 1.44 4.50 1 0 / 0.0% 0 / 0.0% 0 / 0.0% 0 (0) 0 / 0.0% 1.64
Pitch classifications provided by the Automatic MLBAM Gameday Algorithm.

We see here that Lester starts Castillo off with two fastballs in on the hands, both were called for strikes. Lester throws a cutter in the dirt and then tries to backfoot Castillo with a curve. Lester goes back to the fastball and punches Castillo out looking.

Let’s double check this with Castillo’s zone profile:

Castillo vs. LHP Hard Pitches


Castillo vs. LHP Breaking Pitches


We can see from his zone profile that Castillo is particularly prone to whiffing on fastballs up and away, and he also has a weak spot with hard stuff down and in. On breaking balls, Castillo has a weakness against backdoor breaking stuff as well as anything that breaks down in the zone. From this information we can intuit that Lester and Ross were trying to attack Castillo down in the zone, setting him up for a curveball with fastballs in a similar location.

Chris Owings – Top 2nd, Runners on first and second, 1 out, strikeout swinging

Pitch Statistics as coded by the Automatic MLBAM Gameday Algorithm
Pitch Type Velo (Max) H-Break V-Break Count Strikes / % Swings / % Whiffs / % BIP (No Out) SNIPs / % LWTS
FF (Four-seam Fastball) 92.9 (93.4) 5.36 9.89 2 2 / 100.0% 1 / 50.0% 1 / 50.0% 0 (0) 2 / 100.0% -1.91
CU (Curveball) 78.5 (78.5) -4.73 -5.37 1 1 / 100.0% 1 / 100.0% 1 / 100.0% 0 (0) 1 / 100.0% 0.16
Pitch classifications provided by the Automatic MLBAM Gameday Algorithm.

This is a particularly rude sequence of events. Two fastballs on the outer half and then a back-foot curveball to generate a swing and miss. Three pitches: good morning, good afternoon and goodnight. This type of sequence is my second favorite, following only the breaking ball, offspeed, hard stuff sequence as my favorite.

Let’s check Owings’ zone profile and see what the thought process could be:

I think that big ole red box up there pretty much sums up what the plan of attack was here.

Zac Godley was the other strikeout victim and it’s not really worth exploring what the plan of attack was here. I think that if we dug deep into Lester’s pitcher profile we would find that he favors back-footing right-handed hitters with his curveball after setting them up with hard stuff. Changing eye levels and speeds is an axiom as old as pitching, and Lester appears to have his own favored formula for doing just that down.

Lead photo courtesy of Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

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