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Boston Red Sox: Breaking Down Jon Lester's Struggles

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Boston Red Sox: Breaking Down Jon Lester's Struggles
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Red Sox fans are throwing up their hands with Jon Lester.

One of the primary culprits for the Red Sox's nightmarish 2012 campaign was the starting rotation's total breakdown. 

Red Sox starters finished last season with a garish 5.19 ERA, the team's worst since 1932.  

However, this season has been a total turnaround, with Clay Buchholz emerging as an AL Cy Young Award candidate and John Lackey bouncing back from Tommy John surgery to post a 3.03 ERA thus far.  

Through his first nine starts, it appeared Jon Lester was bouncing back too, with a 2.58 ERA through May 15.

Since then, though, the wheels have fallen off completely.  Over the last 30 days, Lester has been one of the worst starting pitchers in all of baseball, turning in just one quality start in his past seven turns. 

No one can quite seem to figure out how to fix Boston's once-consistent ace.  Still, we can pinpoint three key factors in explaining Lester's frustrating season.

 

Sky-High Home Run Rate

Simply put, Lester is making some of his worst pitches at the worst possible times.  The southpaw currently holds a 1.17 HR/9 rate, for his highest ratio of home runs allowed in any full season in his career. 

That number may seem inflated by Lester's 13.3 HR/FB percentage, which is in the top 20 among AL starters.  However, it's worth noting that Lester carried a virtually identical 13.9 HR/FB percentage in 2012, a year many tried chalking up to bad luck.

Why does Lester keep making horribly inopportune mistakes?

Two starts ago against the Orioles, Lester had his best stuff since April.  His control was impeccable, striking out eight and walking none while inducing a career-high 22 swings-and-misses.  And yet, despite a 2.44 FIP for the start, he allowed five earned runs in five innings, two of which came on this gopher ball to Chris Davis:

After the start, Lester seemed befuddled by his lack of his results, according to Evan Drelich of Masslive.com:

I think it was a lot better than the linescore, as far as the way the ball came out of my hand, the way I felt my stuff was. Obviously, the results weren't here. As far as command of all four pitches, it was there. It was there.

My mechanics were better. Like I said, stuff was there. Wasn't for a lack of stuff. I got back to being me. That last start, we tried to do some things we normally don't and it got me into trouble early on. Today was four-seam, cutter, and I had a really good swing-and-miss changeup. One mistake and a few timely hits and we are where we are.

Even when Lester does demonstrate command, it's pitches like the one to Davis that get him in trouble.  What sense is there grooving a pitch right over the middle—on a 3-1 count no less—to arguably the hottest hitter in baseball?  As if proving he had learned nothing, Lester did it again his next start against Miguel Cabrera just two outs from escaping with a comfortable lead.

These problems seemingly stem from a lack of concentration, which is disconcerting, but correctable.  If Lester can pull himself together mentally, perhaps he can reclaim a pitch that has suddenly abandoned him.

 

A Diminishing Cutter

Courtesy Fangraphs.com

From 2009-11, Jon Lester had the best cutter in the American League.  But the last two seasons, his results with the pitch have declined precipitously, to the point that it has actually become a liability. 

It's as if the Monstars from Space Jam decided to steal baseball superpowers, Lester's cutter has, quite literally, disappeared. 

It doesn't seem anyone can quite pinpoint the problem.  After a positive start against the Indians last season, Michael Barr of Fangraphs illuminated how the cutter's diminishing movement caused Lester to rely more heavily on his fastball: 

Based on the behavior of the pitch, that is, the kind of movement he’s getting — it does seem to support that he’s throwing fewer cutters and more sinkers. And in fact, the cutters that he has thrown in 2012 have demonstrated less horizontal movement than they did in 2011, behaving much more like his regular fastball. He tosses in a curve and a change about 13% of the time each, but that’s pretty consistent with years past. The big change appears to be a reliance on the sinker at the expense of the cutter.

And yet, he is back to throwing cutters at his normal rate this season.  In fact, in his start against the Orioles, Lester threw 16 of 20 cutters for strikes, according to Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.  And his velocity on the pitch remains at his career norms.

Still, even when Lester looked like an ace in April, his cutter was still checking in at its paltry 2012 rates.  If nothing is wrong mechanically, it seems the logical conclusion entails some sort of physical issue.

 

Too Heavy of a Workload?

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Once again, Lester is on pace for a 30-start, 200-inning season, which would be the fifth in the last six years for the 29-year-old.  The one year he didn't hit both benchmarks, he came up just 9.1 innings short.

It certainly appears that attrition is taking a toll on Lester's pitching style.  Looking back at his 2009-11 peak, Lester had the second-highest K/9 in the American League, checking in at robust 9.43. 

Will Jon Lester ever be an ace again?

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Since then, Lester's peripherals have remained virtually unchanged.  His 2013 strand rate and BABIP levels have corrected themselves after an unlucky 2012, and his walk rate is actually below his peak-year levels.  However, Lester's WHIP remains a disappointing 1.37, effectively replicating his career-high over a full season of 1.38 last year.

That disheartening fact illustrates an undeniable truth: Lester's stuff is simply more hittable than it was two or three seasons ago.  This month, opponents are batting .359/.438/.696 against Lester.  In other words, opposing lineups essentially turn into nine Miguel Cabreras when facing the lefty.

Lester's decline may truly lie in his high-innings count, which ranks among the AL leaders once again.  Recently, Ben Buchanan of OvertheMonster.com suggested a DL stint may be beneficial to Lester:

And yet, there's no escaping it: something is wrong with Jon Lester, and it needs fixing. As inconvenient as it may be, now is the time to take a step back and try to fix him off the field.

He needs to work out his issues, and whatever they may be, pitching high-stress innings on the mound doesn't seem to be helping.

Unfortunately, the Red Sox are already short on arms, not including a likely DL trip for spot-starter Franklin Morales.  For now, Boston really has no breathing room to provide Lester any special accommodations. 

 

The Big Picture

Ultimately, the only question Red Sox Nation wants an answer to is the following: Can Jon Lester be fixed?

Unfortunately, there is no magic genie who can cure all his woes with the snap of a finger.  However, there is one compelling piece of evidence that Red Sox fans may not want to here.

Even through his excellent first nine starts, Lester's K/9 was just 7.60, much in line with his diminished rates over the last two seasons.  Additionally, his BABIP was below average in both April and May, checking in at .274 and .279, respectively.  Though Lester still has a solid arsenal of pitches, it seems increasingly likely his initial success was the aberration.

Obviously, Lester is not as bad as his 8.44 June ERA indicates.  Nonetheless, it does appear he no longer is the overpowering strikeout-machine he once was.  This does not mean he can no longer be useful, or even an ace, but it does suggest he will probably have to reinvent his approach, something that likely requires a full offseason of dedication rather than a midseason tweak.

Red Sox Nation may be witnessing the end of Jon Lester as they know him.  However, that doesn't necessarily mean that he can't forge a new (or at least an altered) pitching identity and recapture Boston's trust.

 

*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com.  Stats accurate as of Monday, June 24.

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