Jon Lester hasn't had it easy in 2012. Through his first seven starts, he struck out just 28 batters in 42 innings (six per nine) while handing out nearly four passes per nine innings. His ERA was a below-average 4.29 in this stretch, and he averaged just six innings per outing, despite throwing 106 pitches per start. It wasn't the Jon Lester of old -- at least, not consistently so -- and that was a problem for the Red Sox.
In the six starts since, things have improved... maybe. He has thrown 38-2/3 innings over those six games, striking out 34, walking just seven, and averaging 102 pitches and almost 6-2/3 innings per outing. Opponents are teeing off on him, though, hitting .295/.325/.455 with a .350 batting average on balls in play. The result? A 4.89 ERA, and still no complete sign of the Lester that we're used to seeing.
Now, the BABIP may be an aberration, the product of the small sample that six starts provides. But it's a bit unsettling to see that he's being hit this often -- and this well -- at the same time he's reduced his walks considerably. It conjures ideas of Lester leaving fat pitches in the zone, sometimes swung on and missed, oftentimes lashed into the gap for a hit. It's odd to see him allowing a .325 on-base percentage over those six starts, considering he's walked just 1.6 per nine then.
Part of it is an increased use of his sinker, coupled with a lower rate of ground outs on the pitch. Nearly 22 percent of his sinkers have been put in play since May 19 against the Mariners, but his ground out rate has dropped from 23 to 19 percent in the same time frame. His change-up remains highly-effective at inducing swings-and-misses, but it's been put in play far more often as of late: after throwing the pitch for strikes just 55 percent of the time to begin the year (with just 12.4 percent of them in play), 73 percent of his change-ups have been strikes in his last six starts, with a quarter of them going in play. Luckily, many of those have been grounders, although, given his BABIP, that doesn't mean they've all been converted into outs.
His cutter, an important pitch for him in the past, has seen far less use as of late. It was merely average at inducing swings-and-misses to begin the year, but now finds itself falling below even those levels. With more sinkers thrown -- Lester's used it almost 35 percent of the time since May 19 -- at least one of his pitches needed to see less use, and it's the cutter that's been victimized.
The sinker just hasn't been doing enough for Lester, though, as it's been fouled off constantly, is inducing a low rate of whiffs even as far as sinkers go, and is thrown for a strike just a little more than average. As stated, too, opponents are having no trouble putting it in play -- a fine thing for a sinker, generally -- but it hasn't been inducing ground outs in the way a sinker is supposed to.
It has, however, continued to induce grounders -- it's getting half of the job done. But it certainly hasn't been as effective for Lester in 2012 as his cutter was in the past, although, without his old cutter in play, he's needed something to pick up the slack.
Lester is nearly where he used to be. His curve and change are picking up consistent swings-and-misses, and, while he's giving up far too many hits as of late, he's been much more efficient, especially when it comes to throwing strikes. He's not entirely right just yet, though, as the BABIP is partly poor luck, and partly Lester's recent living in the strike zone.
Even with the issues, his recent stretch has been full of positives for a pitcher who had just gone over 100 innings with four walks per nine. If he keeps missing bats and limiting his walks, he's unlikely to see his ERA sit where it is for long, but he'll need to throw consistently smarter strikes -- and get some help from his defense -- before that can happen.