FT. MYERS, Fla. – Jon Lester rarely threw his changeup last season, about three times a game, sometimes not at all. The avoidance traced to last year’s spring training. He focused foremost on honing the command of his fastball, pitching bedrock Lester needed to regain. He had spent the first half of 2007 returning from his bout with lymphoma, and his spring then necessitated simple strength building.
Lester established himself as a Red Sox ace last season, when he went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and dominated the playoffs. But he is still only 25 and, because of his unique career path, still developing. This spring, Lester is adding a changeup to his arsenal, a priority he unveiled today in his first live start of the spring.
The pitch is a “work in progress,” Lester, but spring training affords the luxury of experimenting at no cost. Lester four changeups over two innings and 30 pitches, pitching coach John Farrell said.
“That's what spring training is for,” Lester said. “You use it as a building block for the season, but you also take your weaknesses and you try to focus on them. That's one that, this spring training, we're really trying to focus on.”
Lester’s increased comfort with the changeup will help him keep hitters off-balance and perhaps add longevity. The pitch would make him less reliant on his cutter, a particularly damaging pitch for a pitcher’s elbow “if they fall in love with it,” Sox manager Terry Francona said. Francona has seen other young pitchers overuse the cutter and lose velocity off of their fastball.
Last year, Lester primarily used inside cutters or outside two-seam fastballs when he fell behind in the count. The changeup will give Lester another option, adding a measure of unpredictability and therefore making his fastball and curveball more effective.
“It adds another dimension that hitters have to worry about,” Lester said. “It takes pressure off of my fastball and my cutter. If I can command it and throw it for strikes when I want to, then that'll definitely help.”
Lester’s work this spring has entailed improving the changeup he always threw, not totally overhauling it. Lester recognizes the importance of learning the pitch, but also harbors modest expectations.
“I'm not trying to have the best changeup in the league,” Lester said. “I'm just trying to get a changeup that's effective and one I can throw behind in the count, or whenever we need to.
“My changeup is never going to be my out pitch. It’s going to be a pitch I use in situations – behind in the count, fastball counts, dead-pull hitter, you want to throw that first-pitch changeup, you can do it. But it’s not a pitch that’s going to be an out pitch or a devastating pitch for me. It’s just not going to happen.”
Today, Lester allowed the Pirates two hits and striking out one batter in two scoreless inning, “a good step in the right direction,” he sad.
“Strong out of the chute,” Francona said. “His velocity was really strong.”