Jon Lester's 2012 was rough. Things started out poor in the season's first third, and they didn't get any better from there as his mechanics became more problematic. However, in the season's last third, he started to regain his form, leading to some optimism for his future. Now, joined once more by his former pitching coach, John Farrell, Lester has led the Red Sox staff alongside Clay Buchholz, and Boston sits in first place as they head to Toronto to take on the off-season darling Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays represent the low point of Lester's 2012, as they, under then-manager Farrell, scored 11 runs in four innings against Lester on July 22. They had nine hits, he walked five batters, and he allowed four of the 25 home runs he'd give up all year in that one start. That was his rock bottom moment of the season, and he started his long climb back to the surface with his very next start, but the damage was done to his season line: his ERA, which jumped to 5.46 on the season, only managed to fall to 4.82 by year's end despite his strong finish.
Lester's command was the primary issue with his season, and that game. All it takes is to miss an inch in any direction, and a strike becomes a ball, a potential swing-and-miss offering becomes a hard-hit ball in play, a harmless grounder becomes a homer on a cutter that didn't cut. Due to mechanical issues -- Lester's leg lift was not fluid last year, and it caused him to pitch inconsistently, and his motion was open enough that Blue Jays' batters more than hinted he was tipping his stuff after destroying him -- Lester's command suffered, and all of the above scenarios happened far too often for him to string together success for, never mind long periods of time, but even within individual games themselves.
Since working on correcting his flaws, though, a process that began in earnest following the disaster against the Jays by changing Lester's routine in between starts, the lefty-hander has thrown 116-2/3 innings with a 3.47 ERA and 2.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His homer rate, which sat at 1.2 per nine in his 2012 starts through July 22, is at a much more Lester-esque 0.8 per nine in his last 116 innings and 18 starts. His strikeout rate hasn't fully recovered, but it's also looked much better in 2013 than it did in 2012, and that's expected: flaws like these are easier to correct in the off-season than in-season.
Doug Thorburn, the pitching mechanics guru of Baseball Prospectus, wrote about Lester's mechanics on Tuesday. Thorburn grades pitcher mechanics on a report card, and because of Lester's changes, his personal grades shot up:
Momentum and timing into foot strike are two of the most important indicators of pitch command, and a pitcher who is slower to the plate has a greater window for his timing to fall off track. The speed of Lester's delivery has only slightly improved, but the consistency of his timing has taking a huge step forward along with the fluidity of his motion from leg lift to foot strike.
I timed Lester at 0.1 seconds faster with his delivery this season as opposed to last, and the combination of stronger momentum and fluid timing has acted to extend his distance at release point. A longer stride as well as a correspondingly high frequency of well-timed pitches have allowed him to reach full extension at release point. Lester has also improved his balance since last season, as a previous tendency to lag with the head during the second phase of momentum has since been corrected.
Lester was able to improve three grades on his report card with a single tweak to his mechanics, as the more fluid rhythm of 2013 has raised his scores for momentum, release distance, and most importantly, repetition. I might be beating a dead horse, but I will continue to echo the mantra that repetition of mechanical timing is the single most important aspect of pitching, and that it influences all of the other grades on the report card.
Lester's inability to maintain a fluid rhythm in 2012 is a significant reason in why he often had innings where he looked to be laboring at a level far beyond what his pitch count suggested he should be at, why he had so many long innings that ruined otherwise respectable outings, and why starts like that against Toronto existed at all. Lester had enough inherent ability that he could still look like his old self on occasion, but without repeatable and fluid motions, as Thorburn describes, he wasn't going to get back to what he used to do. Now, with his release point in a better, more consistent spot, and his command improved for it, the Lester of 2012 seems to reside in the distant past.
Thorburn's takeaway? John Farrell has had a "tremendous impact" on the Red Sox already, simply by getting Lester (and Clay Buchholz) back to where they were mechanically when he was last in town, rather than in their 2011 and 2012 forms, where the lessons of Farrell slowly vanished from their toolbox. That's huge news for the Red Sox (even if pitching coach Juan Nieves was mostly -- and undeservedly -- left out of Thorburn's kudos), considering the 2010 campaigns of both -- the last year Farrell was pitching coach -- were the greatest seasons for both hurlers. Remember, from 2008 through 2011, Lester was one of six starters to throw at least 800 innings and post an ERA+ of 135 or better, along with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, and Felix Hernandez. Getting back that guy -- or something even approximating him -- by repairing broken mechanics is more significant than any transaction the Red Sox could have made this past off-season.
If Lester is able to pick back up mechanically where he left off when Farrell headed to Toronto for more than just the season's first month, then the top of Boston's rotation should be in great shape, and that's bad news for the rest of the division. That would mean the Red Sox, who were unable to get even one average pitcher over the course of 2012 in their rotation, suddenly have their ace back, and maybe another in Buchholz. Those are still ifs of significant size, but they paint a picture of 2013 that's a whole lot different from what many analysts had in mind not all that long ago, and it's a pretty one for Boston.
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