Jon Lester's break shows potential benefit of pitcher vacations
For years I have believed that a smart general manager -- one who is also secure in his job -- would one day pass around a sign-up sheet to his five starting pitchers in spring training: Each one gets a two-week vacation during the season, though never two pitchers at the same time. The theory is that the grind of pitching every four or five days for eight months (spring training and postseason included) requires a mental and physical respite.
"We talked about that in Cleveland when I was playing [in the 1980s]," Red Sox manager John Farrell said, speaking about midseason breaks for starting pitchers, not necessarily planned vacations. "John Hart was the GM, and it was something we kicked around but never really did. There is some merit to it."
Early last month Farrell took a look at how Boston lefthander Jon Lester was throwing at the time -- Lester had a 6.27 ERA in his 11 starts before the break -- and then the manager took a look at the schedule compared to prior years. He found that with the All-Star Game a bit later this year, Lester would be making two more starts before the All-Star break than he would in a normal year. Farrell decided that Lester needed an extended break. So he came up with a smart solution: a vacation for Lester.
It wasn't a full-blown flip-flops-and-tiny-umbrella-in-your-drink vacation. It was simply a vacation from the grind of pitching. Farrell used the All-Star break to build in nine days off for Lester.
How did it work out? It just may be the key decision that turns the Red Sox from a scrappy regular season team into a dangerous playoff team. Lester not only benefited from the mental break, but also from the change he made to his style of pitching; he has reverted to a power pitcher who happens to mix in cutters rather than a cutter-happy pitcher who mixes in fastballs.
With Lester looking like a true No. 1 again, and with Jake Peavy throwing well and Clay Buchholz working his way back to the mound after a bout with bursitis, Boston can have the coveted two power arms at the front of the rotation that make the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke), Cardinals (Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller), Tigers (Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander), Rangers (Yu Darvish and Derek Holland) and Rays (David Price and Matt Moore) well suited for deep runs into the postseason.
Nothing is more important in today's game than keeping your starting pitchers healthy. Over the past five years, only 14 teams had four starters make 30 or more starts. Ten of those 14 teams made the playoffs, including all five world championship teams.
You can count every pitch and have a pitcher with a prototypical body, clean mechanics, a father who is a coach and a modest workload as an amateur -- such was the case for the Mets and Matt Harvey -- and still the pitcher can blow out.
Sports media has grown so big and so loud that injuries to pitchers like Harvey and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg give the impression that clubs are losing ground in the effort to keep pitchers healthy. But pitching happens to be so good these days that it's harder to get a hit in the major leagues than at any time in the past 40 years, and harder to score a run than at any time in the past 21. The clubs must be doing something right.
Still, the art and science of keeping pitchers healthy is a never-ending pursuit. Perhaps midseason "vacations" will take root next, especially with the way Lester is throwing.
Lester throttled the red-hot Dodgers in his last start on Saturday in Los Angeles, pitching shutout baseball into the eighth inning of a 4-2 victory by pounding the edges of the plate with fastballs early in the count. He threw 16 first-pitch strikes to his first 21 batters. He averaged 94 mph with his four-seamer and touched 97. He is a different pitcher coming out of the break than he was heading into it. Let's check the bare-bones numbers for Lester before and after his nine-day "vacation":
That's a rather obvious improvement. Now let's look underneath the surface. Lester is getting stronger the deeper he gets into the season. He has improved his four-seam fastball velocity each month for the past four months: 93.18, 93.34, 93.58, 94.05. And he is throwing his four-seam fastball more often. Check out his usage of the four-seamer and cutter before the break and after it, including the fastball-to-cutter ratio:
There was a game back in April in which Lester threw as many as 50 cutters. But he hasn't thrown more than 26 in a game since the break. The cut fastball is a popular pitch because it's a great pitch to throw in fastball counts. It is designed to move late and off the barrel of the bat while its small break, or "cut", makes it easier to control than a breaking ball. But one downside to a cutter -- and this is why Verlander refuses to throw one -- is that conventional wisdom holds that the more a pitcher falls in love with his cutter, the more he loses velocity or life off his fastball. Think Dan Haren. And think Jon Lester -- until now. The Red Sox have a true power pitcher again at the top of their rotation. Lester credited "getting away" as a key to his rejuvenation, especially getting away from the mental grind of overthinking mechanics and pitch selection while slumping.
Built-in breaks, intentional or not, often have helped starting pitchers. Boston knows this as well as any franchise. Each year Pedro Martinez would take a midsummer hiatus with some minor injury, though in 2001 he needed two breaks with a more serious injury, a slight tear of the rotator cuff. Almost without fail, Martinez would return from his "vacations" a better pitcher primed for the stretch run. Here are the annual breaks for Martinez from 1999-2004, how many days of rest he received and his record after the break:
In September 2001, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling of the Diamondbacks did not pitch for nine and 12 days, respectively, as Major League Baseball shut down for a week following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Johnson would throw 291 innings that year at age 38 and Schilling would throw 305 innings at age 34. Arizona won the World Series with the two elders showing no signs of wear.
The mistake that Washington made with Strasburg last year was not in shutting him down early. (He had a 4.29 ERA in his last eight starts and was wobbling with his mechanics.) The mistake was in not managing his innings before shutting him down. Strasburg's bad luck was doing without a hangnail, a blister, a tight hamstring . . . anything minor that would have provided a two-week "vacation" to defer three or four starts.
Shutting down young pitchers has become rather common practice in MLB, but some in the industry are now trying to finesse it by building in more days of rest between starts. New York, for instance, recently used a six-man rotation and any available off day to buy time for Harvey and Zack Wheeler. (The Mets gave Harvey seven days of rest to allow him to start the All-Star Game; he did have a large innings jump last year, +33 2/3.)
"For us to go where we want to go, those guys have to pitch in September," New York manager Terry Collins said last month. "It's part of what great pitchers have to go through. We want them out there in September."
Will the in-season "vacation" become the next conventional practice?
"It's probably better for a power pitcher," Orioles minor league pitching coordinator Rick Peterson said. "It can be helpful, even if it's taking advantage of the schedule to miss one start. I'm not sure it works as well with guys who rely on feel and command. Tom Glavine, for instance, probably wouldn't have been helped by it. If he's feeling good and has touch on his pitches, it would be tough to sit him down for a while and then expect it's still going to be there when he's back out on the mound."
It is possible the injury to Harvey was not preventable. Tears in the ulnar collateral ligament are so common it would be foolish to think all were caused entirely by overuse or poor mechanics, the two greatest risk factors. Injuries happen.
Minimizing risk, however, is a major part of pitching intelligence, and we are really only in the first generation of coaches and care providers who have access to data and extensive biomechanical studies, as opposed to just observational and anecdotal information. Hopefully pitchers will have a better chance to stay healthy, though I suspect that the growth of travel youth baseball -- as well as the increase in pitching velocities at all levels -- continues to raise the intensity of the game and, by extension, the amount of risk.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have to be very encouraged about Lester. His presumptive number two in the rotation, Buchholz, is expected to make perhaps two more minor league starts -- not enough to get him stretched out for a major league start. But Farrell said that at that point he will put Buchholz into the bullpen as "a piggyback starter" -- the new term for a long reliever -- a job that will enable Buchholz to continue to rebuild his arm strength. In a perfect scenario for Boston, the Red Sox would open a playoff series with Lester and Buchholz. It's just the way they would have scripted things back in March, though they have has needed a few re-writes along the way.