Both men were underappreciated, one because his contract was too big and the other because his fastball wasn’t big enough. Those preconceptions warped views like a smudged and outdated pair of glasses. But each time either takes the mound this season, it’s as if the optometrist has tweaked the phoropter to provide that much more clarity.
It was easy to see Lester’s value his last time out, a dominant effort that saw him carry a no-hitter through two-thirds of the contest before settling for a three-hit complete game. The veteran southpaw started the season hot, but derisive comments about the $155 million pitcher started coming up again when he yielded a 10.13 ERA over his first four starts in July. The only decent outing in the group came against the Mets at Wrigley on July 18.
Lester pitched a total of only 16 innings over the course of that quartet of contests, and that includes going 7.2 in the aforementioned Mets game. In seven starts since allowing 4 earned runs in 4 innings against the Brewers on July 24, Lester has been absolutely lights-out. If, that is, you consider a 5-0 record with a 1.35 ERA and 46 strikeouts against only 11 walks to be lights-out.
Hendricks has been more consistent throughout the season and didn’t have the same mid-season hiccup, but he’s been particularly good since August. Over his last six starts, the changeup artist is 4-0 with a 1.28 ERA and 36 strikeouts to 7 walks. He’s stranded 98.6% of the runners lucky enough to reach base against him during that sample as well.[beautifulquote align=”right”]Both Lester and Hendricks have averaged 6.9 innings and a game score 69.[/beautifulquote]
Both pitchers have been saviors of a stressed bullpen, combining to average 6.9 innings per start of late. And both boast identical average game scores of 69. Nice, nice.
As similar as the results have been, though, these men ply their trade in decidedly different manners. Hendricks paints the corners with his fastball before bending a vexing curve or pulling the string on his yo-yo changeup. Over dominant stretch in question, he’s been going with the breaking and offspeed stuff even more. Lester, on the other hand, has relied even more heavily on his fastball while cutting down on the cutter.
But you wanna see something kinda crazy? Lester’s recent success may be at least partially due to working more in the heart of the zone with the fastball. Take a look at his location through July 24 vs. where he’s been throwing since.
Weird, right? Well, maybe not. You see, it’s not just about where a pitch ends up, but how it gets there. And a quick look at the movement Lester has achieved on his fastball may help to explain some of those results.
Seven games is really too small a sample from which to draw definitive conclusions, but working more in the zone has resulted in more strikeouts and fewer walks. And when you’re pitching in front of what is, by at least one measure, the best defense of all time, even the balls in play don’t do much damage. To wit, Lester’s BABIP against since July 29 has been .226 as compared to .261 previously.
Likewise, Hendricks has been locating a little more up and ever so slightly over the plate. His strikeouts are actually down, though negligibly so, but he’s shaved near one full walk (2.47 to 1.49) from his BB/9 tally. Hitters are only averaging .208 on balls put in play against him in this recent sample as opposed to .255 in his prior outings.
There’s nothing dramatically different in Hendricks’ movement, which has remained nearly as static as his expression throughout the course of the season. He just keeps going out and doing his business, challenging the notion that velocity is king.[beautifulquote align=”right”]They work in concert with their defense to produce overpowering performances.[/beautifulquote]
What impresses me most about both of Hendricks and Lester is how they’ve been able to leverage their teammates. Neither is a singularly dominant force capable of going one-on-nine and winning every time out, yet they work in concert with their defense to produce overpowering performances. It’s something you might miss if your vision is obscured or if you’re not able to see the whole picture.
I realize many of you reading this were never drawn into the idea that Lester was overpaid or that Hendricks couldn’t be a viable starter, but you’d be a liar, liar, pants on fire if you told me you expected them to be the two best pitchers in the rotation. With all due respect to Jake Arrieta, that’s exactly what these two are right now. Whether that continues into October remains to be seen, though, and I still expect the reigning Cy Young to take the bump for Game 1 of the NLDS. What a luxury, though, to be able to have those three going for the Cubs in whatever order Maddon settles on.