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Deep Dive: How Jon Lester went against the grain in NLCS Game 5

3 months agoLance Brozdowski

In more ways than one, 2016 was a standout year for the Cubs. Within their run for the ring were numerous improbable comebacks, big plays and a regular season full of exceptional performances that gave them 103 wins.

Even something as granular as Jon Lester winning 19 games and finishing second in NL Cy Young voting in his age-32 season stands out. But how Lester found success in the NLCS despite having 220-plus innings on his arm might be more impressive.

As pitchers age, their “stuff” changes, forcing them to rework how often they use certain pitches. Velocity is one of the main variables driving this change. This forces even the game’s elite arms to adjust.

Lester’s seven-year trend between 2013 and 2019 shows he progressed away from his four-seam and two-seam fastballs and towards his secondary pitches as his fastball velocity has naturally decreased. But during the 2016 regular season, Lester’s usage of both fastballs spiked to 59 percent, a frequency he had not used since his rookie year with the Red Sox. 

When Lester hit the playoffs, he went even heavier into the usage of his two fastballs. In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants, he threw his fastballs 74 percent of the time. In Game 1 of the NLCS, he jacked his usage all the way up to 81 percent.

And in Game 5 of the NLCS, the outing that tied the bow on his NLCS MVP, he used both his fastballs a combined 77 percent of the time. Lester had not used his two fastballs more than 74 percent of the time during any of his 32 regular season starts in 2016.

In Game 5, 15 of Lester’s first 18 pitches were fastballs, a clear indication that establishing fastball location against the Dodgers lineup was a priority. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts stacked his lineup with right-handers to take advantage of the marginal advantage right-handers have against the left-handed Lester. Right-handed hitters mustered 14 extra points of average and 45 extra points of slugging over left-handed hitters against him in 2016. But Lester has never had the drastic split issues some left-handed pitchers face because of his uncommon five-pitch mix versus righties and his dominant cutter.

Lester’s sparse breaking ball usage and ability to cruise through five innings with the series tied 2-2 without much more than his fastballs allowed him to push even deeper into the game. When he found himself late in counts, like in the 6th inning against Howie Kendrick, he was able to turn to his cutter, changeup or curveball and show hitters something they had not seen more than once or twice in their trips to the plate.

He used a similar tactic against Kiké Hernández in the 5th inning, battling back after he thought he had Strike 3 on the outer third of the plate to spin a curveball from a nearly identical “tunnel point” to get Hernández swinging for Strike 3. 

Lester’s final line was 108 pitches across 7 innings, 6 baserunners, 1 earned run and 6 strikeouts. He earned 20 swinging and called strikes on his fastballs and used his curveball only eight times to earn three swinging strikes.

On the back of his elevated fastball usage, his NLCS outing was the peak of his 2016 postseason performance. 

NOTES

  • In 2016, Lester’s cutter had a Fangraphs pitch value of 2.55, the highest of his career. Between 2011 and 2019, this was the only time he had a cutter pitch value above 2.00. 
  • Lester threw 108 pitches in Game 5 of the NLCS. He bested this total five times during the regular season, throwing a max of 113 on Aug. 17, 2016. His career high pitch total since MLB began pitch tracking in 2008 is 130, which he threw on May 19, 2008 with the Red Sox.

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