Sunday, May 4, 2014

Lester Looking Sharp

Lester continued his hot start by setting a career-high with 15 K's yesterday
The Red Sox haven't gotten off to the start they hoped for, but that's not Jon Lester's fault.

Aside from one disaster start against the Yankees on April 22nd (eight runs and eleven hits allowed in four and two-thirds innings), the 30 year-old southpaw has been dominant. Following yesterday's 15-strikeout gem against the Athletics, he now leads the American League in strikeouts, innings pitched, and FIP. He's also sporting a 2.59 ERA, 5.80 K/BB ratio and 1.09 WHIP.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), Lester's in his contract year, which is a good time to be pitching some of the best baseball of his life. If he keeps it up, there could be a Cy Young award in store for him, and Lord knows how many millions of dollars.

However, it's worth remembering that Lester got off to an equally excellent start last year back under old pitching coach John Farrell, going 6-0 in his first nine starts with a 2.72 ERA and holding opponents to a .204 batting average. Then regression set in and he got pummeled for the rest of the first half, taking a 4.58 ERA into the All-Star break. He straightened out in the second half and was dominant in the playoffs.

So far, at least, there's nothing in his numbers that suggests major slippage is imminent. His BABiP is .328, 26 points above his career average, and batters have pretty much been attacking him as they always have. His HR/FB rate and strand rate are low and will probably start creeping back up as the weather warms, but his BABiP should go down as his GB/FB rate normalizes (it's currently at 1.00, well below his career rate of 1.41).

Lester's also unlikely to maintain his 30.1 K% given that it was under 20% the last two years. His velocity's also declining, which means we shouldn't expect him to keep striking out 10.7 batters per nine.

But Lester's approach has been much different this year, so who's to say he can't keep it up? He's abandoned his change-up almost altogether and is going after hitters with more fastballs and a lot more cutters. His cutter, by the way, is a fantastic pitch, so I see why. He's also getting more first strikes over, and thus getting into more pitcher's counts. Lester's walk rate decreased in each of the three seasons prior to this one, so it's within reason to believe his command is still getting better.

Basically, this is a long-winded way of saying that Jon Lester is a good pitcher. He's getting worse with age in some respects, as all players do, but in other ways he's getting better. It's weird that he's going with more hard stuff now that his velocity has diminished, but it's working for him so far, so you can't argue with the results. He's on a roll right now, even if the Red Sox aren't.

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