Mets face playoff-tested Lester in NLCS opener
By Brian Farrell
The Mets face Jon Lester in Game 1 of the NLCS — not potential Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. This will not make their task any easier. As reported by Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune, Cubs manager Joe Maddon cited Arrieta’s career-high 243.2 innings pitched this year as a reason to give his star pitcher an extra day of rest. However, Maddon also knows he’s got a playoff-tested starter in Lester, whose career playoff numbers speak for themselves: 2.66 ERA, 7.1 H/9, 2.4 BB/9, 8.1 K/9.
Lester’s career year came just last season at age 30 and resulted in a seven-year, $170M contract from the Cubs. While he set career highs in innings, ERA and WHIP, his FIP said he was the same pitcher he always had been. That is not to say that he’s not very, very good, but his 2015 salary equals Clayton Kershaw’s. While you can question whether Lester deserved that deal, but the Mets are facing the man and not the contract.
Lester has FIVE different pitches and he’s not afraid to use any of them in any count. He throws a four-seam fastball that averages 92 MPH, which is easily confused with the sinker he throws with about equal velocity. While he has a change-up that averages seven MPH less than his hard stuff, he also uses a cutter that sits between the change-up and fastball as another change of pace. Don’t forget his plus curve ball, which misses the most bats of all of his pitches.
The varied repertoire makes it impossible to go up to the plate as a hitter and lock in on any one pitch from Lester. In addition to the variation in velocity, every pitch moves, from the four-seam fastball to the looping curve, and he likes to let them dance just outside the strike zone. Lester does not rank near the top of the league in first pitch strike percentage or even overall strike zone percentage, making patience key to success against him. Lester’s game is to get you to beat yourself.
Against the Mets left-handed hitters, Lester will live down and away all day and he will only throw his breaking pitches for a strike 30% of the time. Against right-handed batters Lester likes to throw the harder stuff down-and-in. The down-and-in approach is even more pronounced when the throws his breaking pitches. His off-speed pitches to righties tend to be away.
The key to Lester’s success is his not just his varied attack, but also his amazing consistency. Lefties hit .247 against him in 2015, and righties hit .237. If you’re wondering if it’s better to get to him early or to be patient and get his pitch count up, consider his OPS each time through the batting order:
1st Time = .685 OPS
2nd Time = .694 OPS
3rd Time = .698 OPS
4th Time = .649 OPS
So how have the Mets fared against Lester? He dominated them on July 1st of this year, going 7 innings, giving up no runs while striking out seven. However, that lineup featured Ruben Tejada in the two-hole, John Mayberry, Jr. in the five-hole and Kevin Plawecki and Juan Lagares at the back-end. There was no David Wright, Michael Conforto, Travis d’Arnaud or Yoenis Cespedes.
Unfortunately, Cespedes has hit only .154 off of Lester in his career. Lucas Duda has two hits in six at-bats with one home run, but it’s a small sample size. Curtis Granderson has 44 at-bats against Lester, and he has hit .273 with two home runs and a .500 slugging percentage. The rest of the Mets’ lineup has not seen much of Lester, which will make Game 1 daunting.
Lester pitched against the Cardinals in the NLDS back on October 9th, taking a tough-luck loss after logging 7.1 innings, giving up only 5 hits, walking one and striking out nine. He did give up a home run to noted slugger Tommy Pham (cough) and exited with a man on base who would later come around to score. Lester will be starting against the Mets with eight days rest, but if you’re hoping that might be an advantage, note that his career batting average against on six plus days rest goes all the way from .245 to .259.
If he has one chink in the armor it might be his inability to throw to first base. Opposing teams stole 44 bases off of him in 2015. However, stealing bases is not the Mets’ game. He’s also not the athletic fielder that Kershaw and Greinke were, so if ever the Mets were going to consider bunting against the left-handed shift, this might be the time. However, the Mets’ best left-handed bunter is also the guy who hits Lester the best.
The Mets likely get Lester twice in the NLCS and have Jake Arrieta looming behind him. Waiting for Lester to beat himself is not a sound strategy, however patience will be key for Mets hitters, who will need Lester to get the ball up to do any damage. Hopefully Granderson sets the tone for the hitters behind who have had less exposure to Lester. The Mets will find themselves in a test of wills in Game 1, and it’s likely a small number of pitches and at-bats that will decide the outcome.
Next: Mets vs. Cubs in the NLCS: Who wins?
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