"Vintage Lester dominates Orioles" as Red Sox Edge Out Baltimore, 2-1

Evan Brunell@evanbrunellFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2009

BOSTON - APRIL 8: Jon Lester #31of the Boston Red Sox throws against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park, April 8, 2009, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

"Vintage Lester dominates Orioles" read the headline after Sunday's 2-1 Red Sox victory over Baltimore.  While headlines are known for hyperbole, by definition, Jon Lester's third and best start of 2009 was vintage.

vin-tage: adjective (1) representing the high quality of a past time (2) being the best of its kind.

After a breakout 2008 campaign, Jon Lester hadn't seemed to find his groove early in 2009.  Through his first two starts of the season, questions about his ability to avoid the "Verducci Effect" known to smite young pitchers coming off a season of above average workload were echoing across baseball blogs everywhere.
*Can you really blame them?  A branded effect is hard to ignore.  Much like Simmons' Ewing Theory, the Verducci Effect has taken a life of its own.
Lester himself however was unfazed by his lackluster start.
"After the previous starts, I kept saying that I threw the ball better than the linescore showed. It was nice today to go out and throw the ball well again and get the results I wanted to. It just reiterates in the back of your mind that, 'OK, nothing is wrong, I'm still OK' and just move forward." - Jon Lester, 4.19.09

In the past, we would have to either (a) take Jon Lester on his words that he was throwing the ball as well as he wanted in his first two starts or (b) let our eyes and a line score convince us otherwise.  

Thanks to the world of data at our fingertips, or better yet through our browsers, we can now be more critical and calculating in our analysis of players self-review.  Enter PitchFX.

So what is PitchFX? For those of you not familiar with the term, it's the system that powers the pitch type visualizations on MLB's Enhanced Gameday.  Using two cameras and a series of algorithms tracking the flight of the ball from the pitchers hand to the plate, this data can be easily parsed for detailed analysis.  
In my aim to validate Lester's assertion that he really wasn't doing much differently between the first two "not so good" starts and his seven shut out innings against Baltimore this weekend, I decided to take a look at PitchFX data from 2008 in aggregate, his top three game (as ranked by game score) in 2008, and his first three starts of this season and compare and contrast the findings.
If we look across all of 2008 using Fangraphs PitchFX data, you can get a good idea of the selection, velocity, and movement of Jon Lester's pitches.  
As you can see, Lester worked off his fastball most of the time.  His fastball moved more vertically than it did horizontally and had a similar plane to his change up.  His curveball and cutter both worked in to right handed batters and where used regularly within his repertoire.

To get some good visualizations of this data, I turned to BrooksBaseball.net's game by game PitchFX tool.  Here's an example of Jon Lester's pitch movement from his no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals last May.

First from above:


And the same data from the side:

Here's the game data summary from that game in the same format as the 2008 season at large above.  You can see by the similarity of this data to his overall pitch type data for the season, that he had command of each pitch in his arsenal that day.  He was in total control with his better stuff.
After looking at his other 80+ game score outings last season, I think it's safe to consider this representative of Jon Lester pitching to his "A game". 
I would describe his "A game" as being characterized by a 92 MPH fastball that breaks away from right handed batters and a change up that rides a similar plane but is 7-9 MPH slower than the fastball.  He has a healthy mix of cutters and curveballs that he can throw into the mix for strikes to change the plane and spin off his fastball and keep batters off balance.
So what did we see in the first two outings of 2009 that may have differed from this "A game" Jon Lester?  Was his third and more successful start tangibly different than the other two?
I think the data bears out that there are some differences in his pitches year over year.  I think it also bears out that there were only minimal differences between "good" Lester and "bad" Lester.
Here's a table with the same data from each of Lester's first three starts of the season.
So what do the first three games tell us about Jon Lester this season?  First off all, he's added to his arsenal. He's complimented his traditional four seam fastball with a two seam fastball and he's mixed his slider into the rotation to compliment his curveball.  
Over the course of the season, having more pitches to choose from should prove valuable for Lester assuming that he has control of each selection.  He and Jason Varitek should be able to move from pitch to pitch and find the ones that are "on" any given day and lean into those pitches.
Of course, looking at the data above, it all starts with Lester's four seam fastball.  As will often happen to start a season, Lester's average fastball velocity was a little low in his first few starts.  As it did last season, I expect his average velocity and his upper limit to increase throughout the season.

It is interesting to note however, that in his third start, Lester was able to rely more on his fastball and throw it at a higher effective velocity than his two previous starts.
Looking closer at this data, it isn't necessarily fair to group Lester's first two starts together in the "bad" category. For the most part his first and third starts look to be the most comparable.  
The major difference being a rough fifth inning against the middle of the Tampa Bay Rays lineup.  In that inning, Lester threw 15 fastballs out of 24 pitches.  Here is a graph of those 24 pitches and the results.


The light blue square closest to the heart of the plate was the 3-1, 89 MPH fastball down the pike with much less movement than his average fastball that Carlos Pena took deep to push the game to 5-1 Rays.
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Proceeding that at bat, Lester had walked Gabe Kapler before Akinori Iwamura singled to move runners to the corners. A bunt single and Carl Crawford flare accounted for some unlucky damage before Lester got Evan Longoria to ground into a double play.  All in all, Lester's "stuff" didn't appear to be the issue in his first start.  He did in fact pitch better than his 9.00 ERA would suggest.
The same can't be said for his second start.  Looking at his pitch selection, it would indicate that Lester either (a) never really felt comfortable with his fastball or (b) the game plan with Jason Varitek against the Oakland As took him away from his normal strengths.  
Either way, the data would indicate that he did not pitch a game in line with his "A game" in Oakland.
What did Lester do right in his third start?  He had great control of his fastball and a little more life than his previous two starts and he leaned into a steady mix of cutters and sliders off his fastball.  
He was able to elevate his fastball with velocity and keep hitters off balance with the rest of his repertoire.
Does this all give us any idea what to expect over the course of Lester's season?  I think it's too early to tell.  But given where his velocity stands, his ability to command his fastball for strikes at a near 70% clip and the mix of pitches to work hitters off of, I think Lester will show more of the same "vintage" Lester in his coming outings.