Date: September 30, 2015
Opponent: Cincinnati Reds
Location: Great American Ballpark
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end
Since April, my greatest hope was that one day this feature would be to baseball analysis what Semisonic is to music. Today, with the regular season now complete, I have decided this hope has been realized.
Well, we’ve done it folks. You (the reader(s?)), me (the writer), and Lester (the pitcher), have arrived at the final regular season 2015 Ballad of Jon Lester. At the conclusion of this Ballad, I will have written 50,000 words about Jon Lester since the first week of April, a span of 32 starts over 178 days. My wedding vows were about 400-500 words in length, and my wife and I plan on being together for at least five years.
Against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night, Lester saved one of his best performances for last. By Game Score (81), it matches Lester’s performance in Pittsburgh on September 15th as his best start of 2015. The stakes might not have been as heightened, and Joey Votto was not in the lineup (see below), but it was still damn impressive.
Lester set season best for strike percentage (74.3 percent), while throwing his second-most strikes (75). He also set a season high by throwing first-pitch strikes to 84.6 percent of batters (22 of 26). As you can see below, Lester lived over the plate on the first pitch:
The uber-patient Reds hitters took 15 first-pitch called strikes. This allowed Lester to stay ahead in counts, as he had just two three-ball counts. Lester struck out at least nine batter for the fifth time this season, but did not issue a walk for the first time in any of his starts. He induced 15 whiffs, tied for his second best total of the season.
Lester retired the final 20 batters he faced, and he was efficient while doing so. In three innings, Lester needed nine or fewer pitches, including just 15 pitches combined in the sixth and seventh innings.
Lester faced the Reds twice in April. He went a combined 12 innings (six in each start), allowing nine earned runs on 15 hits, and, in what would become a running theme, he earned a no-decision in both starts. When he walked off the mound in Cincinnati on April 24th, Lester sported a 6.23 ERA, 1.569 WHIP, and .810 OPS against.
As the season progressed, though, the Reds became as middle of the pack as an offense can be, ranking between seven and 11 in the NL in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, ISO, and strikeout rate. Against left-handed pitchers, the Reds hit .249/.316/.405, which was slightly above league average. The offense had been especially woeful in the past month, though, averaging less than four runs per game and hitting just .246/.312/.384. As we mentioned above, Votto did not start, further cementing it as a good matchup on paper for Lester.
*Votto, however, was just 1-for-6 against Lester in 2015, and averaged just 3.5 pitches per plate appearance.
And a good matchup it was for a pitcher who is peaking as the postseason looms. Much like my wedding vows, we will keep this brief, so everybody can hit the bar. Keep reading below to learn how it all went down.
8.0 IP, 3 H, 9 K, 0 BB, 1 ER
101 pitches (75 strikes)
Lester finished September with his fourth start of 50 or more four-seam fastballs. Of the 26 first pitches, 19 were four-seam fastballs, with 15 going for strikes. Just one Reds player reached base via the four-seamer, and none after the first inning. This month, Lester set a season high for both overall four-seam usage (49.68 percent) and first-pitch four-seam usage (62.42 percent).
Lester went to his curve just 12.9 percent of all pitches in September, his lowest usage in a month since April (12.5 percent). The difference is when he goes to the curve. In April, he went to it just 12.38 percent in two strike counts. In September, he has gone to it 19 percent of two strikes counts. At Cincinnati, five of 12 curves came with two strikes, with two picking up strikeouts.
His cut fastball was sharp. While he threw it less than a quarter of all pitches, half of his whiffs (seven) and strikeouts (four) came via the cutter. It was the continuation of a September trend, in which Lester went to his cutter just 23.55 percent of all pitches, but used it to record 35 percent of his strikeouts.
As we discussed briefly above, Lester absolutely dominated in September with two strikes. On Friday, he threw just under one third of his pitches with two strikes (32 of 101), and he did not allow a base runner.
Entering this month he had posted pretty solid season numbers with two strikes:
|Pitch||Frequency w/ 2 strikes||Strikeouts||AVG||SLP|
In September, though, Lester’s two-strike numbers improved, specifically with his two big pitches—his four-seam and cut fastballs:
|Pitch||Frequency w/ 2 strikes||Strikeouts||AVG||SLP|
Right now, Lester is getting ahead of batters (primarily with the four-seamer) and putting them away with all five pitches. In the postseason, that ability to finish hitters when he gets to two strikes, and not allow them to extend at-bats or reach base, is vitally important.
Inning: Eighth Inning
Score: 8-1, Cubs lead
Situation: Bases empty
Batter(s): Ivan De Jesus
As detailed in the Introduction section, Lester entered the eighth inning on a roll, requiring just 15 pitches combined in the sixth and seventh innings. He had retired 17 consecutive Reds hitters. When dominance is that pronounced, we can pick nearly any at-bat to highlight as key. So we will pick up the action in the eighth inning. If you are a regular reader of the Ballad (you’re the real heroes!), you know Lester is executing all five of his pitches both early and late in counts. He demonstrated just how confident he is with all five opening the eighth inning against Ivan DeJesus.
DeJesus, in his career, has struggled against left-handed pitchers, slashing just .238/.301/.345 with a 25-percent strikeout rate. True to form for both players, Lester had struckout De Jesus in his previous two at-bats. In the second inning, with the count 0-and-1, Lester induced a whiff on a 92-mph sinker out of the zone:
Four pitches later, Lester would pick up the strike out on a cutter that stayed off the outside edge of the plate. That whiff on the sinker, though, would be filed away for later in the game.
With two strikes, Lester first attempted to put De Jesus away with a changeup way off the plate, but he did not bite. Next, Lester came back over the plate with a cutter, which De Jesus fouled off.
Still 2-and-2, Lester threw a 90.6-mph sinker low and out of the strike zone:
De Jesus whiffed for strike three, and it was remarkably similar to the 0-and-1 sinker he chased in the second inning. Lester and David Ross had filed the pitch away and came back to it after they could not put away De Jesus with a change or cutter. And as you can see below, when De Jesus has two strikes, he has little success with fastballs low and out of the strike zone:
As we detailed last week, Lester and Ross are entering October completely in synch, with the former masterfully executing the latter’s perfect game plan.
Lester was dominant in September, posting his two best starts of the season and his second best month by WHIP, strikeout rate, walk rate, percentage of batter’s ahead, and his third best month by ERA and FIP. As you can see below, it continued a bizarre season long trend of alternating great and subpar months:
|Month||Avg. Start||ERA||WHIP||OPS||BABIP||K%||BB%||% of Batter’s Ahead|
His two best months (July and September) came in the season’s second half. In Lester’s 14 starts after the All-Star break, he posted a 3.04 ERA, 0.961 WHIP, 26.9 percent strikeout rate, and an opponent’s OPS of .597.
The final wrap-up Ballad will be coming at some point down the road (like November, hopefully), so I will refrain from any sweeping declarations or summations. At Cincinnati, Lester was efficient (again, just the two three-ball counts) and used his four-seamer to get ahead in the count, and recorded multiple strikeouts with his four-seamer, cutter, and curve, and one with his sinker. He and Ross kept things simple, electing to keep it simple with his big three pitches: four-seam, cutter, and curve.
Lester is heading in October on the heels of a very strong start (and month and second half, for that matter). Lester finished top nine in the NL in innings pitched, WHIP, FIP, and strikeout rate. He is using all five of his pitches early and late in counts, limiting base runners (only Jake Arrieta and Stephen Strasburg posted a better WHIP in September), keeping the ball in the park, and consistently giving the Cubs seven innings. We have reached the end of the regular season, but the Ballad will continue into October. Take a deep breath and have your White Russians poured, Balladeers, because it’s about to get damn exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure.
Season to Date
11-12, 3.34 ERA (3.94 DRA), 1.122 WHIP, 25.0% K, 5.7% BB
Friday, October 9 at St. Louis Cardinals (knock on the artificial wood of my desk)
Lead photo courtesy of David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports