Last night, Jon Lester was roughed up by the Tampa Bay Rays who scored seven runs on six hits and three walks. The Rays blasted three home runs against the Boston Red Sox lefty and Lester lasted just four innings, his second shortest outing of the season. After yesterday’s game, Jon Lester has a 4.72 ERA and a 4.31 FIP, both worse than any season long total since he became a full time starter in 2008. Unfortunately, Lester doesn’t look like he will rebound any time soon.
This season Jon Lester has been reasonably effective at times and struggled at other times. On May 14, he pitchedhis best game this season, a one run complete game. He scattered eight hits and walked none. However, even in this game, Lester failed to the one thing that has made him a force on the mound. He failed to get a high number of strike outs. He struck out six hitters in those nine innings, a reasonable number for some pitchers, but a startlingly low total for Jon Lester.
This season Jon Lester is not getting the Ks he needs to if he is going to be an ace. His career 8.26 K/9 is well over two strikeouts more than his current 6.05 rate. You have to go all the way back to June 2008, when Lester was in his first full year to find a lower rate in any single month. In his entire professional career he has only had two months with lower K/9 than his current mark. From 2009-2011, Lester was among the top strike out pitchers in the game, with a 9.43 K/9. This year, he isn’t even close to average (7.2 K/9).
Unfortunately, nothing else has changed in Lester’s game. He is just a hair below his career average 3.39 BB/9 with a 3.25 rate and while his 49.7% ground ball rate is above his career average, it is an insignificant amount below his rate from last year. Without an accompanying drop in his walks or a groundball rate of unprecedented levels, Jon Lester cannot be an ace without a strikeout rate well above average. Essentially he gonefrom being CJ Wilson to being Chris Volstad between 2011 and 2012.
Jon Lester has not lost any velocity at all and it appears the cause of this declining strikeout rate may be a result of a shift in his pitch selection. The only noticeable difference in Jon Lester this season is an increased reliance on his sinker at the expense of his cutter. Lester is throwing the sinker 27.5% of the time after using it just 16.7% in 2011 and 11.7% in 2012. There is some chance that Pitch F/X classification errors are exaggerating the differences, but even if that is true, it does appear that Lester favors the sinker more than ever before. His cutter is one of his best pitches for inducting whiffs with hitters missing on 9.1% of all swings at the pitch. His sinker gets just 3.6% whiffs. That is more than enough to explain the dramatic drop in swing strikes. On his career, Jon Lester has gotten swing strikes on 9.2% of his pitches, now he is get them on just 7%.
Jon Lester’s new strategy is inexplicable. He has throw his cutter for strikes more often than his sinker, gotten more swings at his cutter and missed more bats. As of yet, there has been no significant rise in his groundball rate accompanying the increased use of the sinker. Simply put, he depending on his sinker has just made Jon Lester more hittable with absolutely no benefit. He needs to abandon this new strategy and rely on his cutter far more. Until he does, Jon Lester cannot and will not be the ace the Boston Red Sox need.