Why Jon Lester's Alleged Foreign Substance Had No Impact on Game 1
A Boston Red Sox pitcher stands accused of doctoring the baseball in Game 1 of the World Series. All throughout the baseball district of cyberspace, cries of "Shenanigans!" can be heard.
Enough already. While these cries aren't totally unwarranted given the evidence at hand, they're pointless.
The accused is star left-hander Jon Lester. He hurled seven and two-thirds shutout innings to lead the Red Sox to an 8-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night.
While he was in the process of doing so, somebody noticed something odd. Tyler Melling, a pitcher in the Cardinals organization, caught a glimpse of something inside Lester's glove and tweeted out a picture of it. His original tweet has since been deleted—we'll get into why in a moment—but the folks at The Big Lead took the initiative of preserving it:
Jon Lester's Glove Contained a Green Substance, Was He Cheating? http://t.co/45qaEXHNjo— The Big Lead (@thebiglead) October 24, 2013
Via Tim McKernan of InsideSTL.com, then came an obligatory Vine video:
Between the image and the video, it appears that there was something on the inside of Lester's glove, and he was making sure it came into contact with his fingers on his left hand.
Frankly, it's hard to sit here and deny that there was indeed something in Lester's glove. But the Cardinals never said anything, and their general manager John Mozeliak went so far as to tell Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he's not fretting about the situation.
"As far as I'm concerned it's a non-issue," Mozeliak said. "It's something that arose in social media and not from our players or manager or our coaching staff. To me it does not represent a concern."
Goold also noted that the organization had somebody talk to Melling, hence the reason his original tweet has disappeared.
Major League Baseball took a look, and it, too, saw nothing to get up in arms about.
“We cannot draw any conclusions from this video," said the league in a statement, via Hardball Talk. "There were no complaints from the Cardinals and the umpires never detected anything indicating a foreign substance throughout the game.”
The two entities that would be annoyed about Lester allegedly doctoring the ball aren't annoyed. That's a good enough excuse for the rest of us to move on.
If you're looking for more excuses, don't worry. They exist.
We don't know exactly what that yellow smudge was, but BullFrog sunscreen is the likely culprit. That was the substance highlighted by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports when he wrote in May that about 90 percent of pitchers use some sort of sunscreen to get a good grip.
Via Passan and baseball writer Chris O'Leary on Thursday morning:
A yellowy and gooey substance, this BullFrog stuff. Just like whatever was in Lester's glove in Game 1.
But if 90 percent of major league pitchers are doing the same thing when they pitch, then Lester was doing nothing out of the ordinary. You can call it "cheating" if you want, but if that 90 percent figure is even in the ballpark, whatever Lester might have been doing is more accurately described as "protocol."
As Passan put it:
MLB has no problem with pitchers using sunscreen. Hitters don't, either. Because their pitchers use it, too. This shouldn't be a big deal.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 24, 2013
More importantly, though, a close look reveals that Lester certainly wasn't benefiting from whatever foreign substance he might have been using.
Using data from Brooks Baseball, what we're going to do is take a look at the velocity, horizontal movement and vertical movement of Lester's pitches in Game 1 as compared to before Game 1. Since he only threw five pitches that weren't classified as either four-seamers, curveballs or cutters, we'll focus on just those three pitch types:
|Before Game 1||Four-Seam||93.71||6.99||9.59|
|Before Game 1||Curveball||76.59||-3.81||-4.05|
|Before Game 1||Cutter||90.44||1.80||5.71|
Lester didn't have any extra velocity on his four-seamer or curveball, and he was actually throwing his cutter a bit slower than usual. And while he did gain some horizontal and vertical movement (or "rise," if you prefer) on his four-seamer, it wasn't enough to sound any alarms. He also lost some horizontal movement on his curveball.
But the real key is what happened with Lester's cutter. It was the pitch that gave the Cardinals the most trouble in Game 1, but it wasn't because Lester was throwing a particularly good one. His cutter movement was par for the course.
Dan Brooks, who founded and runs Brooks Baseball, told WEEI.com that there's "nothing there" to suggest Lester had an unnatural edge in Game 1. After taking a look at the same data he must have looked at, that would appear to be the case.
As such, this is not the same sort of situation that cropped up in May when fellow Red Sox hurler Clay Buchholz was accused of cheating.
When that happened, former major leaguer Jack Morris pointed out to Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com that Buchholz had been featuring some unusually nasty heat in a start against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 1. The accusations had to be taken seriously because there actually was something different going on in that game.
Per Brooks Baseball, the April horizontal movement was minus-3.26 inches on Buchholz's four-seamer and minus-6.27 inches on his two-seamer. Against the Blue Jays, he was getting minus-4.36 inches of horizontal movement on his four-seamer and minus-7.58 inches on his two-seamer. Both pitches were clearly moving more than usual.
That wasn't the case with Lester on Wednesday night. The pitches he was throwing were indicative of his typical output.
Now, if there is a decent excuse to cry foul, it's that the goop Lester appeared to have in his glove might have helped him combat the cold Boston weather. Perhaps without it, he wouldn't have been able to get a good grip on the ball, and thus would not have been able to throw typical Lester pitches.
But let's assume that Lester's opponent had his hands clean all night. If so, then maybe the cold kept Adam Wainwright from getting a good grip and, thus, making his pitches perform as usual?
On the contrary, the pattern that shows up in the performance of Wainwright's pitches is a little fishy.
|Before Game 1||Four-Seam||92.11||-2.32||8.79|
|Before Game 1||Curveball||76.05||8.17||-9.36|
|Before Game 1||Cutter||88.60||1.88||5.10|
Wainwright's velocity is steady across the board. And while his four-seamer did lose some horizontal movement, it gained a large amount of vertical movement. His curveball and cutter, meanwhile, both picked up a huge amount of horizontal movement. There's a graph over at Brooks Baseball that shows the sort of movement he was getting on both pitches was very out of character.
So if anything, the playing field in Game 1 was actually shifted more in Wainwright's favor than in Lester's favor. Whereas Lester's pitches were performing as usual, Waino's pitches were the ones that had extra life on them.
Was Jon Lester operating on a level playing field in Game 1 of the World Series?
This is not to insinuate that Wainwright was cheating. This is merely pointing out that whatever it was in Lester's glove was a total non-factor in deciding the outcome of Wednesday night's game.
The Cardinals got beat for less sinister reasons. Wainwright wasn't particularly sharp with his command. Sloppy defense led to three errors and resulted in extra baserunners, extra outs and, ultimately, extra runs for the Red Sox.
The Cardinals offense, meanwhile, just plain stunk. Not exactly a shocker given that it had entered the World Series with a collective .610 OPS, and it didn't help that Carlos Beltran, St. Louis' best offensive performer, was lost early in the game with an injured ribcage.
The 8-1 final score says the Cardinals just flat-out got beat, and that's exactly what happened.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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