Jon Lester on the Edge Puts Red Sox on the Edge

Without doubt, the worst question asked of Mike Matheny in his postgame press conference Monday night was whether or not he thought David Ortiz deserved the World Series MVP award. That question, presumably, came from a trained and experienced professional journalist, and Matheny responded about exactly as you’d think he would. If it used to be true that there are no stupid questions, then I think we can agree it’s true no longer. Humanity has broken new ground. But with all that said, you figure Ortiz does have the inside track at this point. In this paragraph we’re going to pretend to care about the World Series MVP award. Ortiz presently doesn’t have much in the way of competition, but perhaps some consideration could be given to Koji Uehara, and of course plenty of consideration would deserve to go to Jon Lester. For it’s Lester who has now bested Adam Wainwright twice, including once Monday in St. Louis.

In retrospect, Lester didn’t need to be as good in Game 1 as he was. He did need to be as good as he was in Game 5, and thankfully because he was so good, we don’t need to sit here talking about whether he should’ve batted in the top of the seventh. (No.) We can just focus on Lester’s performance on the mound, and he finished with a run and seven strikeouts over nearly eight innings. Ask the Cardinals and they’ll tell you Lester on Monday was the same as he was before. A few have gone on record saying as much, and twice now the Cardinals haven’t had an answer. But I think it should be pointed out things weren’t completely alike. There were plenty of similarities between Game 1 Lester and Game 5 Lester — Lester himself was genetically identical — but Game 5 Lester featured a couple twists.

We’ll start with some simple images, from Brooks Baseball. They don’t actually look that simple, but they’re totally intuitive. These images are also going to tell you information you already could’ve guessed. Let’s look first at Lester’s whiff rates by pitch location over the PITCHf/x era:


Got it? More whiffs out of the zone. Fewer whiffs in the zone. Makes sense. Not many whiffs at all down the middle. Now let’s look at some slugging percentages allowed:


Surprise! Lester has been hurt when he’s left pitches over the middle! By far his highest slugging allowed is in the zone middle-middle. His second-highest slugging allowed is in the zone upper-middle. This is what you’d expect of pretty much every pitcher, and those are zones pitchers typically try to avoid.

In Game 1 of the World Series, Lester threw five pitches middle-middle, and another five pitches upper-middle. Those numbers were actually a little higher than his season average, but not significantly. Now, I want you to look at a .gif:


Give up on what that is? I’ll give you another moment. Give up on what that is? Here are Lester’s pitch locations from Game 5:


Zero pitches upper-middle, one pitch middle-middle. That one pitch is the pitch you see above, that Carlos Beltran popped up in a 1-and-0 count. Monday night, Jon Lester threw 91 pitches, and only one of them wound up in the zone in which he’s been hurt the most before. The pitch wasn’t supposed to go there, but it’s not like every mistake gets punished — a small minority of mistakes gets punished — and besides, the bases were empty in a two-run game. What was maybe Lester’s worst pitch didn’t burn him, and it was in a forgiving situation for a bad pitch, and there wasn’t much else in the way of bad-pitch competition.

So already we know that Lester was working on the edges. He worked on the edges effectively against Matt Carpenter, who was the only left-handed batter he faced. More can be gleaned from how Lester pitched to righties, since they made up the bulk of things. Look at those Brooks charts. Let’s classify the first two columns as showing inside pitches, and the last two columns as showing outside pitches. The middle is the middle. You’ve got it!

In Game 1, Lester threw 41% of pitches inside to righties, and 47% of pitches outside to righties. One recalls that Lester worked both sides about evenly. In Game 5, Lester threw 55% of pitches inside to righties, and 32% of pitches outside to righties. We can dig deeper into this.

There were some differences with first pitches — Lester threw a higher rate of inside first pitches to righties on Monday. But the real difference is with the fastball. As you’ve learned by now, Jon Lester throws both a regular fastball and a cut fastball, and his cutter is outstanding. In both Game 1 and Game 5, Lester threw 25 cutters to righties, and they went to similar locations. Some of them went in. Some of them looked for the back door. Some of them were low. What Lester did differently was locate his four-seam fastball.

The first game, Lester threw 35 fastballs to righties. Of those, 11 were inside, and 19 were outside. He seemed to want to confuse hitters with two different outside fastballs that broke in different ways. Monday night, Lester threw 42 fastballs to righties. Of those, 27 were inside, and 12 were outside. Lester doubled his rate of inside four-seamers, or I suppose you could say David Ross called for Lester to double his rate of inside four-seamers, and I don’t figure this was a coincidence. These things are usually planned out, as Ross and Lester would’ve wanted to come up with an adjusted game plan for an offense that would be trying to adjust to what it saw last week.

As one example, here’s Lester busting Allen Craig inside for a called strike:


And here’s Lester setting up Yadier Molina:


After a first-pitch outside changeup, Lester came with three straight inside fastballs. He tried to catch the outer edge with a curve, but Molina took it for a ball. Back Lester came with another inside fastball. The count still 2-and-2, Lester subsequently froze Molina with a perfect cutter on the outer edge. Molina would’ve been looking hard in, and soft away, and Lester exploited that.


Of course, no performance can be completely explained by a handful of numbers. Lester didn’t dominate because of any one thing; he dominated because of a whole bunch of things, all working together, all happening at different times or at almost the same time. Every plate appearance presented its own challenges, and every plate appearance demanded its own approach. It just so happened that Lester threw a lot more pitches inside, especially four-seam fastballs. Probably, that was deliberate. Lester had good stuff, and he had his command, and when you blend good stuff with good command, you get starts that win World Series games.

One throwaway note of some interest: at one point, Lester went 47 consecutive pitches without throwing one curveball. Before that, he’d thrown four out of 25 pitches. After that, he threw five out of 19 pitches. For a stretch, Lester was almost all about his fastball and cutter, but that was bookended by sequences in which Lester featured his breaking ball. Even within a start, starters can change quite a bit.

Lester now ought to be done starting and changing in 2013. The season he’s leaving behind came with its share of ups and downs. Yet it ended in the best possible way, with brilliance, with brilliance that put the Red Sox on the verge of a world championship. Two times in this World Series, Jon Lester beat Adam Wainwright. One of those times, Lester did more than he needed. The second of those times, Lester was as amazing as he needed to be. One way or another, Red Sox fans will never forget this World Series, and they’ll never forget how much Jon Lester did to help his team try to achieve the ultimate bounceback.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

Jeff, say for some reason Lester’s option isn’t picked up. If you had to choose, would you want the Mariners to sign Ellsbury or Lester? Would be a homecoming of sorts for both.

Spit Ball
9 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Not pick up Lester’s option? I’m going to copy and paste a sentence from Jeff’s article.

“If it used to be true that there are no stupid questions, then I think we can agree it’s true no longer. Humanity has broken new ground.”