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Change Comes For Jon Lester

09.01.09 at 1:45 pm ET
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As mentioned in today’s feature, Jon Lester stands on the verge of setting the Red Sox record for strikeouts in a single season by a left-handed pitcher. Lester, who is averaging just over 10 strikeouts per nine innings, has fanned 187 batters this year. With four more punchouts, he will surpass the current Sox southpaw record of 190, set by Bruce Hurst in 1987.

Lester’s strikeout rate has spiked significantly this year, to the point where he is one of the foremost power pitchers in the American League. He ranks behind only Justin Verlander of the Tigers in strikeouts per nine innings. Yet for the most part, Lester and other members of the Sox insist that his stuff is almost unchanged from a year ago. A year ago, he already featured his current repertoire of a mid- to high-90s fastball, a low-90s cutter, hammer curve and changeup.

“Not one particular pitch is all of a sudden, ‘€˜Oh, he has a cutter and he never had one.’€™ He’€™s had all four, and he’€™s developed all four more,” said catcher Jason Varitek. “He’€™s just developed more as a pitcher. I think that’€™s more than anything.”

Yet Lester’s strikeouts per nine innings have increased by roughly 54 percent, going from 6.5 per nine innings last year to his current double digit tally. While the development of his ability to attack opponents with all four pitches has increased as Lester — widely viewed as an excellent student of the game — has gotten more experience, it is also clear that his increased confidence in his changeup has also changed the looks that the pitcher presents to opposing hitters.

Asked how he is using his changeup differently in 2008 versus 2009, Lester offered an explanation that revealed not only one of the causes for his increased strikeout rates this year, but that also gave fascinating insight into his thought processes on the mound.

“I use it. I use it. That’€™s the main thing. This year, it’€™s gotten to the point where at any time, I feel comfortable throwing it. Whereas last year, I felt comfortable throwing it maybe one time a game. It was a non-competitive pitch. It wasn’€™t even a factor in (a hitter’s) mind that I would throw it,” said Lester. “Now, it’€™s to the point where I feel comfortable throwing it. I use it behind, ahead, in even counts. It’€™s a pitch they have to worry about and respect, and I think that plays your fastball up even more.

“You get righties, fastball away-changeup, you get them (looking away) and the fastball in, cutter in is that much more effective. You get them turning on the fastball and cutter in, then you throw them a changeup and it’€™s bad contact. You can use it early in the count or late. You can get bad contact with it or strikeouts.

“I think it makes them respect the fact that you’re just not going to come fastball-cutter in. They’€™ve got to try to play the guessing game. If you get a guy trying to guess, most of the time that’€™s when you get strikeouts or bad contact. Eventually you run into a guy who guesses right and gets you. You want to try to minimize that for a single or a double. But sometimes, they guess completely right, get it, and that’€™s baseball.”

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