Good News/Bad News from Keith Law

In case you missed it, Scouts, Inc/ESPN’s Keith Law scouted the Rays/Sox opener and had some good news bad news for the faithful. On the good news side, there was his take on Lester:

The story of the Red Sox’s 3-0 win over Tampa Bay on Monday night was Jon Lester, who dominated the Rays for five innings and then gutted his way through another two-plus innings.

Lester continues to look stronger every time out. He showed outstanding command of three pitches on Monday. Over the first five innings, he worked heavily off his fastball, mixing in the cutter and curveball, both of which were very sharp.

[snip]

Overall, it was an incredibly strong performance from the potential No. 2 starter in Boston’s playoff rotation. When he had all three pitches working with strong command, he was able to get hitters on both sides of the plate out and to do it in different ways each time through the order. He’ll need to avoid tricks and stay with the fastball-first approach if he gets the call in October.

Nothing in there I particularly disagree with. That said, I’m more than a bit concerned that he’s currently sitting at 189.1 IP. After so much was made last year of the benefit that rest had for Beckett heading into the playoffs, wouldn’t it seem normal to expect a similar respite be given to Lester? Particularly since he’s 24 and only threw 63 big league innings last year?

Or am I taking crazy pills?

On the less positive front was Law’s reaction to Papelbon’s (successful) outing:

Jonathan Papelbon used to throw a devastating splitter as his out-pitch, changing eye levels between the splitter and his upper-90s fastball. He’s scrapped the splitter and replaced it with a slider that’s nowhere near the swing-and-miss pitch that the splitter was. On Monday, he got his four outs without throwing anything but a fastball. Papelbon’s been more hittable this year, and if he’s trying to be a one- or 1½-pitch pitcher, that’s a likely reason why, and a cause for some concern headed into the postseason.

I had been wondering why Papelbon was more hittable this year than last – relatively speaking, of course. His ’08 season line of (.204/.228/284) is nothing to cry about, but neither is it ’07’s (.146/.219/.244). Some of that, of course, is luck. 07’s BABIP was .237, while ’08’s is the more predictable .299. Some of it was the fact that his performance was not sustainable. Still, the fact is that he’s giving up a few more hits, and as heavily leveraged as his innings are, a few more hits are noticeable.

Law traces that back to an unwillingness to throw his split, which is the first explanation I’ve seen, but Fangraphs says that’s not entirely accurate. According to them, Pap’s fastball percentage is up – 81.6% of the time over last year’s 78.1 or 06’s 73.5. It is also true that his usage of the split has steadily declined over that same span, from 19.7, to 15.7 to this season’s 12.4. But he is still throwing it, or so says the data.

Even so, I am curious, and not a little worried, about the trend. Because while Pap’s fastball is explosive, and does move, his performance was better when he showed a bit more variety. Worse, it makes you wonder if there’s a reason he’s throwing fewer splits.

Obviously, I’d take him over just about any other relief pitcher on the planet. But are the warning signs there?

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