Saturday, September 26, 2009

Right-field fence seemed to spook Lester

Postgame comments from Red Sox manager Terry Francona did quite a bit to alleviate the concern about the right knee of Jon Lester, the knee struck by a line drive off the bat of Melky Cabrera on Friday night.

"When it first happened, it looked terrible," Francona said. "It sounded terrible. He was in a lot of pain. But I think it caught enough meat or muscle where it wasn't a direct blow on that bone. He got X-rays, and they came back clean. From talking to Dr. (Larry) Ronan and our trainers, he might be right on turn -- and the fact that we're even talking about that is good news."

It remains to be seen, of course, how Lester feels in the morning. But the lefty professed a strong desire to avoid skipping a start before the playoffs -- "Regardless of how many simulated games or bullpens you throw, it doesn't give the full effect of seeing live hitters," he said -- and expects to pitch against the Blue Jays back at Fenway Park this week.

If that's the case, then, we can move onto the next pressing issue: Something about pitching at Yankee Stadium has spooked Lester.

Yankee Stadium has spooked many pitchers this season. Something about the way the ballpark was constructed has turned right field into a conveyor belt for home runs. Dustin Pedroia, for example, had never hit an opposite-field home run in his life, at any level, before he did so at Yankee Stadium. Far more home runs have landed in the right-field seats than the left-field seats, something you seldom see given the preponderance of righties swinging the bats:

(It's the complete opposite, as you can imagine, at Fenway Park. Thanks to HitTrackerOnline for the charts.)

Lester, as a lefty, has a built-in advantage pitching at Yankee Stadium. The switch-hitters in the Yankees' lineup -- Melky Cabrera, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira -- all have to turn around and hit righthanded against him, and that makes it far more difficult to take aim at the Little League dimensions out in right field.

Lester had surrendered three home runs in his first two starts at The House That Scott Brosius Built, but two of those home runs went to left-center field rather than right field. The homer-happy right-field corner hadn't seemed to be a problem for him against either righties or lefties. He'd done well to pitch away from the ballpark, to prevent lefties from pulling the ball or righties from taking a crack at going the other way.

He took the strategy to an extreme on Friday, though, and it came back to bite him.

In Lester's up-and-down first inning against the Yankees, 29 of the 30 pitches he threw were on the left-field side of the plate. Throwing to that half of the plate -- inside to righties and outside to lefties -- made it difficult for anyone to take a shot at the right-field fence, and no one really did.

"We were trying to go in a lot (on righties)," he said. "We've done that before."

But because he also tried to go away a lot against lefties, too, it made his sequence totally predictable. The Yankees could eliminate half the strike zone and adapt their swings accordingly.

Here's what the first inning on Friday looked like:

Compare that to his first inning at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 9:

Not much changed the rest of the way. Here's his strike-zone chart for the entire game, once again from the perspective of the catcher:

And here's his strike-zone chart from Aug. 9:

(Pitch charts once again come from

Lester began to mix and match in the second inning but reverted to old habits in the fateful third inning that saw him surrender four runs and take a line drive off the knee. He actually threw a pretty decent pitch to Alex Rodriguez, but with the outer half of the plate a non-factor, Rodriguez had a pretty good idea he was going to see something on the inside corner. He turned on a fastball on the inside corner and at the knees and ripped it into the second deck in left field.

"Alex hit a good pitch, down and in," Lester said. "He was obviously looking in, and he turned on it and didn't miss it. That's the way it goes."

That might the way it goes, anyway. But it seems like Lester gave Rodriguez no choice but to look for something on the inside half. A veteran hitter wouldn't miss a pattern that obvious.

Should Lester have a chance to pitch at Yankee Stadium again in Game 1 or Game 2 of the ALCS, it'll be interesting to see if he tries the same strategy or if he mixes it up just a little bit.

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