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Did Jon Lester doctor the ball? ‘You can look at the data. There’s nothing there’

10.24.13 at 12:22 pm ET
By
Jon Lester

Jon Lester

The pictures are intriguing, albeit grainy in the fashion of “documentation” surrounding the existence of Bigfoot: What is the discoloration on the thumb of Jon Lester‘s glove? Why is it a glowing green? Is it nuclear waste or some other radioactive substance that gave the pitcher superpowers in Game 1 of the World Series? Or perhaps Vaseline to provide his pitches with extraordinary movement? A sticky substance to improve grip and command? A well-designed, phosphorescent placebo meant to inspire the pitcher to the illusion of heightened powers without actually doing anything to impact his ability to pitch?

For now, the Zapruder-quality images — some of which are found here, including the picture that a Cardinals minor leaguer tweeted out during Game 1 of the World Series on Thursday night — will do little to clarify what Lester did or did not do to the ball. Major League Baseball said the video was insufficient to suggest evidence of cheating while noting that the Cardinals didn’t complain and the umpires didn’t detect any shenanigans.

But what about the actual pitches? Did anything about the way that Lester threw suggest an advantage gleaned from an illegal substance?

To Dan Brooks, the answer is very straightforward: No.

Brooks, a neuroscientist at Brown University who runs the indispensable BrooksBaseball.net (which compiles data about pitch type, movement, location and rotation to offer a detailed picture of pitching performances), suggested that the pitching data related to Lester’s dominant 7 2/3 shutout inning performance offered no evidence of the pitcher benefiting from cheating.

“You can look at the data. There’s nothing there. There’s not going to be anything there. There’s nothing to look for. There’s no erratic movement. He threw more cutters last night than he has in a while, but he was facing a very right-hand dominated lineup,” said Brooks. “As far as, was there any weird erratic pattern? No.”

Lester’s fastball averaged 93.6 mph and topped out at 95.7 mph with an average horizontal break of 7.95 inches and an average vertical break of 10.19 inches. His cutter averaged 89.2 mph and topped out at 91.5 mph, with an average horizontal break of 1.84 inches and an average vertical break of 5.18 inches.

Those marks lined up fairly closely with Lester’s season averages, most notably, his performance throughout the second half. His fastball averaged 94.1 mph in the second half of the regular season with 6.65 inches of horizontal break and 9.75 inches of vertical break. His cutter averaged 90.3 mph with 1.26 inches of horizontal break and an average vertical break of 5.25 inches. In other words, what Lester did on Wednesday was very much in keeping with the performance he’d shown after the All-Star break.

“There are reasons [putting a foreign substance on the ball] could do something, but I don’t know that the something it does is any more than the natural variation in pitching,” said Brooks, who noted that there is no objective data to detail the specific impact or benefit of doctoring the ball in different ways. “A cursory glance [at the data from the Game 1 start] suggests nothing is different. … There are some pitches down the middle of the plate. There aren’t any dead-center down the middle of the plate. He didn’t throw a no-hitter. The ball got hit plenty. It doesn’t really look objectively all that much different from any other outing.”

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