Jon Lester: Tunneling to Success

When you come up through the ranks as a young lefty starter, you learn about the importance of the changeup. By breaking away from the right-handed batter, that pitch offers the best way to neutralize the natural platoon advantage those hitters have against you. By the time you get to the big leagues, it’s part of your approach, like it or not. That’s why lefty starters throw changeups 65% more often than righty starters in major league baseball.

If you look at Jon Lester’s career, though, his best years have come when he’s thrown his changeup the least. The flippant reason for that truth might be because his changeup isn’t that great, and his other pitches are better. The long version is much more interesting, though, as it gets to the theory of changeups, and a new concept called tunneling.

Put the dividing line at 7% changeups, and the differences between the changeup-heavy and the changeup-light seasons are remarkable.

Changeup-Heavy vs. Changeup-Light Seasons, Jon Lester
Condition ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9
Changeup-Heavy 3.83 1.28 8.25 3.22
Changeup-Light 3.09 1.18 8.66 2.39

For his career, Lester has gotten 16% whiffs on the changeup. The league’s changeups average 13.7% whiffs. So his changeup is great, and he should throw it more, right?

Not every pitch thrown in a small sample to great results should be thrown more, and there are already hints in the results that tell us why Lester stopped throwing the pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, the changeup has been a ball for Lester more than any of the rest of his pitches over his career. And because of a low foul rate, it’s been put in play more than any of his pitches save the sinker.

Rate of Balls and Balls in Play by Pitch Type, Jon Lester
Pitch Ball% BIP%
Four-Seam 35.0% 15.6%
Two-Seam 38.9% 24.0%
Change 42.4% 19.8%
Curve 42.3% 13.1%
Cutter 32.1% 18.3%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

So the changeup is either a ball or put in play nearly two-thirds of the time. And quitting it has led to fewer walks and fewer balls in play. Sometimes, it’s that easy.

And for what it’s worth, the research suggests that maybe Lester’s change is not that great. The average lefty changeup has nine inches of arm-side run and five inches of vertical movement, and Lester’s has… nine inches of arm-side run and five inches of vertical movement.

When Harry Pavlidis researched changeups and what made them effective, he defined changeup movement relative to fastball movement. And Lester’s sinker? It has nine inches of arm-side run, and five inches of vertical movement. If he paired the sinker with the change, the only difference would be the 6 mph of velocity that separated the two. And if you threw a slow sinker and a slightly firm changeup, they might look like the same pitch.

It’s that last bit that might be more important than any flaws the changeup has. Lester may have ditched the change because his other pitches fit better together.

Jon Roegele recently tried to tackle how pitches fit together, and he came up with a concept called tunneling. Some pitches look the same for longer, until subtle differences in movement take them in different directions closer to the plate. These pitches are “in band,” meaning they move in a tunnel together until the hitter makes a decision to swing. The high four-seam fastball and the curveball, for example, can look the same until the curve dives for the plate. The sinker and the slider pair well.

Turns out, taking advantage of these “in-band” pairings can be beneficial to a pitcher. The curve, in particular, gets 30% more swinging strikes if used as the second pitch after a four-seamer has set it up. Lester’s curve gets 40% more swinging strikes than your average curve.

And Lester is very good at taking advantage of this tunneling philosophy. In 2013 and 2014 combined, he threw nearly one in five pitches “in band,” meaning the pairings were similar looking out of his hand. That was ninth-most among qualified starters during those two years. He gained four percentage points in swinging strikes from this philosophy on those pitches, too.

In 2015, that work continued. Thanks to Roegele, who re-ran the numbers for this past season, we know that Lester gained 3.8 percentage points in swinging strike rate this from in-band pitches, and also that he threw 19% of his pitches in those sequences. He’s more top 20 than top 10 this year, but it’s still impressive.

And, when you compare him to the starter who was supposed to go opposite him in Game Five in the National League Championship Series, you can see how a pitcher can make the most out his stuff by thinking about how to pair his pitches best.

In-Band Pitches, Jon Lester vs. Matt Harvey
Name In-Band% In-Band SwSTR% Out-of-Band SwSTR%
Jon Lester 18.9% 14.1% 10.3%
Matt Harvey 15.8% 14.2% 11.9%

When they sequence their pitches similarly, Harvey and Lester are both great pitchers with virtually the same swinging strike rate. But while Harvey throws fewer pitches in those sequences than league average (16.4%), Lester makes sure to throw many pitches in that grouping. As many pitches as possible, it seems.

And it’s that concept of tunneling that brings it all together. By using a flawed changeup less often, he not only reduced his walks and balls in play, but also increased his usage of the four-seam, curve, and cutter. And those three pitches, when used in tandem, play well together. They look the same until it’s too late.

We hoped you liked reading Jon Lester: Tunneling to Success by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Marcus Tullius Cicero
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Marcus Tullius Cicero

Interesting stuff.

A question, though: how does Roegele go about classifying particular pitches as “In Band” or not? I will grant you that a fastball at the letters and a curve at/somewhat below the knees can look the same out of the pitcher’s hand. But say that a pitcher wastes a 0-2 fastball up where even Evan Gattis can’t get it, and then bounces a curve in the dirt on the following pitch to try to get a chase. Presumably the super-high fastball and the super-low curve would be distinguishable sooner than the letter-high fastball and the knee-high curve. Would the second pair of pitches count as “In Band,” or not?

Second question: since “In Band” is defined by *two* pitches rather than one, if I correctly execute an “In Band” fastball-curve sequence, do I get credit for two “In Band” pitches or one?