First the AC joint, now the neck: it seems like Clay Buchholz’s shoulders are feeling the weight of the Red Sox season. But in April, he at least had help. Looking like his old self, Jon Lester started the year 3-0 with a 1.73 ERA and 23 K’s over 26 innings. It’s been downhill from there. Lester didn’t allow more than five hits in any of his first four starts; he’s allowed five hits or fewer only twice since. After imploding in Tampa on Tuesday, his ERA had risen to 4.12.
During his peak years, Lester had exceptional command within the strike zone, which led to lots of strikeouts and weak contact. But his HR/9 rate and opponent average, indicators of strike-zone command, spiked to 1.10 and .269 last year, both career worsts. Compounding Lester’s loss of fastball command were a drop in velocity and the loss of his nasty cutter. These explain Lester’s lack of strikeouts; he whiffed only 7.28 per 9 last year. If Jon Lester’s recent struggles represent a regression to his 2012 form, he could be in trouble.
What did Lester do so well at the beginning of the season? His cutter returned, his velocity stabilized, and most importantly, he commanded his fastball. He walked only four batters over 26 innings to begin the season, and didn’t give up a homer. Opponents hit Lester at .198 over his first four starts. But since then, his walk, HR rate and opponent average have climbed. Why? Lester’s velocity has remained relatively consistent and his cutter has been there for him. This leaves us with a classic culprit: fastball command. His dismal start in Tampa (4.2 IP, 8 H, 7 BB, 3HR) was exemplary of this: Lester couldn’t find the zone with his sinker and got killed on stray fastballs. Unlike last year, it’s not a drop in velocity or the lack of a cutter that’s hurting him, and this is cause for optimism. Fastball command comes and goes, but Juan Nieves’ success with Lester in April suggests that he should be able to get the lefty going. Lester’s two best starts since April, a one-hit shutout of the Jays and seven innings of 2-run ball at the Trop, have both been games in which he could spot his fastball. Interestingly, in both starts, Lester averaged 91.9 MPH on his fastball, tied for his second slowest average fastball of the year. It’s possible that Lester needs to sacrifice speed for control. The bottom line is that his recent struggles have been caused by fastball command, something that he should be able to regain.