“What the hell is wrong with Lester?” Loses 3-0 to A’s

A’s 3, Sox 0, but the loss pales in significance to the real story:  “What the hell is wrong with Lester?”  There are three theories: bad luck, lack of focus, and reliance on his cutter.

LISTEN:

The pitch that Oakland catcher Norris, a .204 hitter, hit with two out in the 5th inning was a cutter, that Sox announcer Joe Castiglione said was: “pretty much down the middle of the plate.”

This has been Lester’s pattern:  a weak hitter in the lower third of the batting order gets a fat cutter and makes solid contact, usually with two out.

Jun 11, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester (31) looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Boston Red Sox 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 11, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester (31) looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Boston Red Sox 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We can discount the “Lester Luck” theory held by erstwhile Sox ace, but the other two theories seem to fit the evidence.

Farrell has used the phrase “lack of focus” to explain the root of the problem.

Red Sox pitching coach, Juan Nieves, has been concerned that Lester, who made a living with his cutter, now relies on it too much as his “go to” pitch, when he needs a strike.  It appears that Nieves believes that savvy MLB batters are now “sitting on the cutter,” whenever Lester needs a strike.

The solution seems simple:  Nieves has been trying to get Lester to develop an alternative pitch, a change-up, which would keep batters from expecting the cutter.  But, reading the subtext of Nieves’ comments, it appears that Lester has been unable to develop a touch for the change, or may even be disinterested in working on the pitch.

Nieves says that Lester needs to “evolve” his game plan:

“Guys that have been in the league for a long time, everybody has to make some observations in the way they pitch, and those that are able to do it are the ones that stay there for a long time,” Nieves said. “With Jon, I think there’s some game plan alterations, and we’ll continue working at that.”

Translation to Cowboy English:

Lester is too reliant on his signature pitch, the cutter that has worked in the past for him.

Manager Farrell uses the phrase “lack of focus,” but also alludes to Lester’s inability to locate his cutter:

“He just hasn’t realized that pitch to finishing in the spot he’s accustomed to, and that’s to the edge (of the plate) or in off, It’s a pitch that’s been somewhat of his trademark, and yet right now, it’s the one that’s kind of giving him an issue.”

“I don’t think I’m a different pitcher,” Lester said when asked to compare this start with the rest of the season. “I’m the same pitcher, different results. The stuff’s the same, the mindset’s the same.”

The implied solution: Lester needs to use his developing changeup, when he would “go to” his “old reliable” cutter.

Case in point: Last Monday night Lester threw a fastball and a curveball, both called strikes. Relying on his previous years of success, Lester figured he could KO Mariners left fielder Raul Ibanez with his formerly reliable cutter.

Like the game tonight, when Norris crushed a two-strike cutter, the pitch to Ibanez also missed Lester’s intended location and, like Norris, Ibanez smacked a go-ahead homer in Seattle’s 11-4 win.

Farrell politely, but directly opined that Lester may have been better off throwing his emerging changeup and not telegraph his cutter to the batter:

“We’re seeing a changeup that is a much better pitch now with later action and depth than it was prior,” Farrell said. “The changeup has become such a weapon for him. For lack of a better way to describe it, it’s part of the adjustment he’s going through as he continues to evolve.”

Translation to Cowboy English:  Nieves has taught him to throw a decent cutter with some movement, why the hell is he stubbornly sticking with the cutter that he cannot locate?

A:  Fear of failure.  Lester does not have confidence in his change.  He thinks he has a better chance to get the batter out with his formerly reliable cutter, all he needs to do is locate it in the right place [i.e. not over the heart of the plate.]

Does Farrell need to tell his catcher to call the change and not let Lester shake it off and thrown the cutter instead?

With the loss tonight, Lester continues to regress; in his previous outing, the Mariners raked him for five runs over five-plus innings; since May 20, the Lester is 2-5 with a 6.49 ERA in 10 starts.

Although he gave up only 2 runs in his inning stint tonight, Lester’s given up four runs or more in five of his last six outings and has particularly had issues locating his pitches with runners on base.

Is it possible that Lester has a “tired arm”? He is # 5 in pitches tossed in the AL since 2008.

“Over the past two seasons, Lester has been betrayed by his cutter, by far his best pitch during his salad days from 2008 through 2011, when he routinely ranked among the top pitchers in the American League. Thanks to Brookline-based stats guru Bill Chuck, we have the following numbers to illustrate his increasing reliance on his cutter over the years and his lack of effectiveness with the pitch since 2011.

  • 2008: 330 cutters, opponents hitting .274, .686 OPS, two homers, 71 strikeouts
  • 2009: 500 cutters, opponents hitting .214, .539 OPS, one homer, 41 strikeouts
  • 2010: 728 cutters, opponents hitting .185, .480 OPS, one homer, 71 strikeouts
  • 2011: 798 cutters, opponents hitting .187, .543 OPS, three homers, 87 strikeouts
  • 2012: 454 cutters, opponents hitting .240, .640 OPS, three homers, 45 strikeouts
  • 2013: 319 cutters, opponents hitting .264, .719 OPS, two homers, 29 strikeouts

According to the database at FanGraphs.com, the average velocity of Lester’s cutter has remained consistent, ranging from a high of 89.9 mph last season to a low of 87.0 mph in 2008. In 2010, when Lester was at his peak, his average cutter velocity was 89.6 mph, almost identical to this year’s 89.4 mph average. But over the past two years, Lester’s cutter hasn’t produced nearly as many swings and misses, in part because he hasn’t located it as well.”

[http://www.athleticsnation.com]

Although only 7-6, Griffin has better than a 3-1 K-W ratio [91-27] and a BAA .236, 3.94 ERA, 1.14 WHIP.

In tonight’s game, the A’s hung up a run in the 5th, 6th and 7th innings; to wit:

5th: Derek Norris homers (5) on a line drive to left field.

6th: Yoenis Cespedes singles on a ground ball to left fielder Daniel Nava. Jed Lowrie scores. Josh Donaldson to 2nd.

7th:Coco Crisp singles on a line drive to right fielder Shane Victorino. Josh Reddick scores. Derek Norris to 2nd.

A’s affable skipper, Bob Melvin, was gracious in accepting the W and paid the traditional respect to the losing opponent:

“When you look at the internal numbers, you can see exactly why they are where they are,” Melvin said. “Offensively, they do everything. They can run, they hit for some power, they’re first in runs, RBIs. Some middle-of-the-order guys that definitely get your attention. Same at the top. “

Sox manager John Farrell was just as complimentary of the Oakland pitching staff, the best pitching staff in the AL.

Although the surprising Bartolo Colon gets most of the credit, the Athletics starting staff has a 3.73 ERA and the pen men a stingy 3.19 ERA.

“It’s a good pitcher’s ballpark,” Farrell said. “Pitching has been a calling card to them over a long period of time, and when you see what Bartolo Colon is doing, it makes you marvel at his ability to still throw in the low-to-mid 90s and be as effective as he is.”

Before tonight’s loss, Lester had given up four runs or more in five of his last six outings and has particularly had issues locating his pitches with runners on base.

Griffin, however, has been a reliable contributor for the Athletics.

He bounced back from a tough game against the White Sox on July 2, when he gave up seven runs over 5 2/3 frames, by earning the win with a two-run, five-inning outing against the Royals on Sunday.

Tonight he held the power Sox to 6 hits, he K’d 3 and walked one in 8 solid innings; 8-6, 3.68 ERA.

Grant Balfour blanked the Sox in the 9th and picked up the SV [25], 1.67 ERA.

L to Lester: 8-6, 4.58 ERA, 6.1 innings, 6 H, 3 R, 4 Ks, 3 Ws.

Farrell offered an upbeat note on the loss:

“Jon gave us a solid effort…He just happened to pitch on the wrong day given how effective their guy was. We had a number of opportunities, and as we’ve gotten some key hits with two outs the past few nights, it wasn’t the case this time. On a night we score our usual number of runs, we’re probably having a completely different conversation.”

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2013/07/14/5565456/lester-outpitched-red-sox-fall.html#storylink=cpy

About the Norris HR in the 5th, manager Farrell observed:

“Some will always say ‘pitch selection’…It always comes down to location. And I know there was conviction behind the pitch, it wasn’t like there was a pause or any kind of shaking off or anything like that. That was the pitch they wanted to throw and it didn’t get to the intended spot.

Lester summarized his struggles in the first half of the season:

Bad execution. When it comes down to those times in the game where you need to execute pitches and not allow runs to come across the plate, I just didn’t do a very good job of that. So take the break, get away for a little bit and come back fresh, almost like it’s a new season for me.”

BOX: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/gameday/index.jsp?gid=2013_07_13_bosmlb_oakmlb_1

Sunday: Brandon Workman*  vs. RHP Bartolo Colon (12-3, 2.69), 4:05 p.m., EST.

* “…His first major league start and second appearance.

Workman has never been especially highly regarded as a prospect, but he has always been top 20 material and he has always performed well. His 3.71 ERA at Greenville in 2011 is the highest of his career, and this year he has been phenomenal between Portland and Pawtucket. Between 11 games with Portland and 6 with Pawtucket, he has a 3.21 ERA, 9.62 K/9, and 2.67 BB/9. Surprisingly, he has been even better in an admittedly short sample size in Pawtucket than he was in Portland.

He was not overly good in his first major league appearance. He allowed 3 earned runs in a 2 inning period, though he did strike out 4 batters and threw a scoreless second inning. If I were Farrell, I may have turned to Rubby de la Rosa to start this game. However, of the names he picked, Workman is certainly the most deserving and we wish him luck in his first MLB start.”

–Conor Duffy, Bosox Injection

[http://bosoxinjection.com/2013/07/13/workman-gets-the-nod-for-sunday-start/]

SOX FEATS:

  • Entering this game, the Sox had the most wins in baseball. But their winning percentage (.611) is just slightly behind the 56-35 Cardinals (.615).
  • Pedroia has reached base safely in 17 of the last 18 games, hitting 27 of 43 (.370) with six extra-base hits and 14 RBIs.
  • Ortiz has 19 homers. Ted Williams had 16 seasons with 20 home runs for the Sox. Big Papi would join Dwight Evans and Jim Rice as Sox players with 11 20-home run seasons.
  • The Sox are now 4-1 against the A’s this season after going 1-8 last year.
  • Prior to the loss tonight, the Sox had won four straight and nine of 12.
  • Sox started the day with a 4.5-game lead in the East.
  • Lester was 2-5, 6.49 in his previous 10 starts. He is now 4-4, in 12 career starts against Oakland. That includes a rocky start on April 24 (5.2 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 6 BB, 5 K).
  • Griffin was 1-1, 5.29 in three starts against the Sox. He faced them on April 22 at Fenway and allowed seven earned runs over five innings. He is now 2-1.
  • The A’s have scored six runs in their last five games.
  • After tying a season-worst three-game losing streak, the Red Sox had won four straight. With the loss tonight, they’ve won 13 of their last 18.
  • With the recent call-up of Grant Green the A’s “vs. LHP” infield [Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, Grant Green, and Nate Freiman] was on display tonight for the first time ever.
  • Moneyball… Michael Lewis:

“The point is not to have the highest on-base percentage, but to win games as cheaply as possible. And the way to win games cheaply is to buy the qualities in a baseball player that the market undervalues, and sell the ones that the market overvalues.”

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Topics: John Farrell, Jon Lester, Juan Nieves

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