For the first time in his 14-year career, the book on Jon Lester may be changing.
Lester, who’ll take the mound against the Pirates on Saturday afternoon in his first start of the second half, has always heavily relied on his four-seam fastball. At the height of its usage, from 2012 through 2015, Lester was going to the four seamer over 50% of the time.
And then something happened in 2016. Quietly, Lester began moving away from the pitch:
In the course of three seasons, Lester went from throwing a four seamer basically every other pitch to barely 30% of the time. In its place? The cut fastball. It’s now his most-thrown pitch, the first time in his career that’s ever happened.
“I think he’s just feeling it as much as anything,” Joe Maddon said. “For the most part this year, I always look for that in the game - I always want to see where that’s at. And when that’s pretty much on? He normally has a pretty good day. I think it’s something that he’s feeling, that he’s got a good feel for. I still like the curveball intermixed with that, and more changeups too I believe.”
The results, so far, are a mixed bag. On the surface, he looks like the same pitcher that he’s been over the last two or three seasons; his ERA and FIP this season are almost identical to where they were 2018. He's giving up a lot more loud contact this year, but you can blame that more on a sinker that's been particularly ineffective this season.
Dig a little deeper, though, and stuff starts showing up. For instance, the Hard Hit % on Lester’s four-seamer has risen 13 percentage points since 2015. Per Baseball Savant, the expected batting average, slugging percentage, and wOBA on his four seamer have all been significantly higher than that of his cutter, and for multiple seasons. His cutter has a better K% and BB%, too.
“He’s just pitching, and I think there’s a lot of confidence,” Madden added. “I think it’s a combination of what he’s feeling and also he’s pretty good about reading the reports and wanting that information too. But I just think he’s feeling it right now - that’s what I’ve seen. When you see the backdoor on the righty and and then all of a sudden he saws somebody off, and then against the lefty it’s down and away - it’s really very fruitful for him. But I think it’s a matter of feel right now.”
More news and notes from Saturday morning at Wrigley Field:
- There was no pregame update on Cole Hamels. On Friday, Maddon said “he's been feeling pretty well. Even prior to the break, talking to him, he was pretty optimistic. Go throw today, hopefully you say you feel good and come back tomorrow and report back.” He threw from various distances during the Cubs’ batting practice, and Maddon mentioned there could be a more in-depth update after Saturday’s game.
- Long considered a high-OBP guy, leadoff man Kyle Schwarber has struggled at times with that in 2019. “That’s who he is,” Maddon said. “He’s always been the guy that’s able to focus on staying in the zone and accepting his walks… Stay within your zone, stay within your lane. You stay there, and don’t get so eager that you feel like you have to try and make something happen, which happens to everybody. For him and for us, it’s just to stay located and make them get you out within the strike zone and go do what you've always done. If these guys want to walk you, just accept the walk. I want the whole lineup to feel that way.” After ending 2018 with a BB% above 15%, Schwarber is currently walking at a 12% clip this season, which would be the lowest of his career.
- The carousel at second base isn’t going to end any time soon. When asked if the starting position was up for grabs or the team planned on continuing the platoon of sorts, Maddon hinted at the latter. “Robel has shown that there’s some serious pop in his bat,” he said. “Addison has not hit to his capabilities, but when he’s out there you have to love the defense… When these guys don’t start, the bench is pretty firm and I like that too. You’re probably going to see a lot of what you’ve been seeing to this point, if I had to guess. If someone were to get scorching with the bat, of course that would make a difference.”