The Oakland Debut Of Jon Lester
(originally written 8/3/14)
Ex-Cub Jeff “Shark” Samardzija made his Oakland debut about a month ago, tossing seven innings of one-run ball in front of just under 23,000 roaring fans who seemed to immediately embrace him.
Now it’s Jon Lester’s turn to boost the AL West leaders.
Few true baseball fans exist who aren’t familiar with Lester by now. Still, broadcaster Shooty Babitt offered this for the small faction unfamiliar with the big lefty: “This guy is a bad dude…he’s gonna make you say “Wow” more than once during this broadcast.” Think David Wells in his prime without the physical issues and off-field headlines…with better stuff…and better conditioning.
(Personally, I’ve been a proud member of Red Sox Hation long before Lester emerged on the scene but he has never once drawn my scorn for any reason. He’s a baller, somebody tough to dislike and easy to respect.)
Kansas City didn’t have much of a chance to beat the newest A, at least probability-wise. This is a team last in the AL in home runs and walks drawn—3B Mike Moustakas is one off the club lead in homers despite a weeks-long demotion to AAA. The Coliseum, of course, is a place where batting averages go to die and a home run requires skill and strength rather than nifty configurations or thin air.
If that weren’t enough, donning Royal blue generally renders a man hapless against Lester—he entered today’s dance with a lifetime 1.43 ERA in 11 starts vs. KC lifetime. No other pitcher in history has a lower lifetime ERA against the Royals (75 or more IP.)
The trade fouled up Lester’s regular pitching schedule—he’d be throwing on a whopping seven days rest as opposed to the customary four. No way to know how the layoff would affect the big guy until he finally took the hill at 1:05 pm in front of 30,097 eager fans:
Jon Lester - pitcher
Jason Vargas - pitcher
1st-inning summary: First-pitch strike to Aoki, much to the crowd’s delight. The ex-Brewer taps out on the next pitch. Infante pops out 2-0. Perez dumps an 0-1 single to left before Butler pops an 0-1 high fastball to center. An eight-pitch debut inning for Lester. Guess he’s OK.
Like Lester, Royals starter Jason Vargas has gotten past non-baseball health issues (’13 blood clot, ‘14 appendectomy) and thrived, especially in recent years. Vargas’ first frame was even quieter than Lester’s, though Fuld’s long foul ball generated some noise. In fact, Vargas was even more effective than Lester early on, not allowing a hit until the fifth.
This show was about the Oakland lefty, however. He would give up hits, though few were squared up. The boxscore will credit Erik Kratz, the KC backstop, with a second inning single. The boxscore will not credit Lester for the pitch Kratz hit—a low curve which fooled Kratz to the point of comedy. The baseball gods repaying Kratz for his decade in the minors is the only plausible explanation for him hitting that pitch with that swing.
Lester repeatedly attempted to coax strikes on heaters justoff the outside edge. Plate ump Toby Basner, six months younger than Lester (and the worst that David Wright has ever seen), refused to cave—and it bit Lester in Aoki’s second at-bat. Following a single, Aoki walked on three close pitches, putting KC in position to score on a pair of sacrifices.
Lester’s defense—namely that of Donaldson, who lost a bloop in the sun and couldn’t handle a smash right at him—got him in 4th inning trouble, and just as quickly got him out when Fuld struck down Gordon at the plate to wrap an 8-2 double play! In doing so, Fuld inadvertently creating a new measure of athleticism/entertainment we’ll call “Plate Tumble Factor” (because in this day and age, “Gun Tumble Factor” will cause too much fidgeting.)
PTF accounts the volume, degree and grace of a center fielder’s roll after uncorking a throw to the plate, and can be used to measure their athleticism and entertainment value. If you can tumble with Sam Fuld, you’re a PTF stud. (Kinks need to be worked out before this breakthrough is shared with Bill James.)
Back to the man of the hour…
Continuing to make good pitches, Lester cruised into the 7th now up 8-1 on a series of defensive goofs by the Royals. The boxscore will again prove deceptive to those who read Vargas’ final line of 4.1 IP and 7 ER that would read much differently but not for gaffes by Butler, Gordon and Moustakas behind him. Jon Lester had not time to worry about his KC counterpart; he was too busy making the All-Star Perez look downright silly in his 3rd at-bat, erasing slugger Butler on a total of three pitches his first two times up, and only reaching one more three-ball count after the Aoki mistake.
However, as if screwing over his own pitcher wasn’t enough, Gordon screwed over Oakland’s as well with a prolonged eight-pitch at-bat in the 6th that seemed to tire him somewhat. The Royals, not at all interested in a storybook beginning to Lester’s Oakland tenure, chipped away for a couple more scores before Ryan Cook and Jesse Chavez—the man displaced by Lester’s arrival—slammed the door.
Lester’s final line: 6.2 IP, 9 hits (maybe five of them solid), 3 ER, a walk, 3 K, 104 pitches—and 29,842 satisfied paying customers (I’m adjusting for the estimated 165 people who somehow got in for free and/or were KC fans.)
He moved the ball, he showed excellent command, his fastball reached low-mid 90’s and his off-speed stuff had snap. He did not dominate outside of the first inning but Lester gave every indication he can be the #1 on a staff with up to three other pre-existing #1’s. Were it not for the extra leisure time, he’s likely even sharper.
Losing a popular slugger like the Cuban Missile (Yoenis Cespedes) obviously stings; a percentage of fans felt Oakland needed Yo’s power bat more than they needed another starter—even one as decorated as Jon Lester. But doubters must ask themselves: A) The ultimate goal is winning the World Series, correct? And if the answer is “Yes”, B) Who gives Oakland the best chance of getting there, Cespedes—who, for all his off-the-charts talent, is also frustratingly streaky and reckless—or Lester, as rock-solid reliable as they come?
For one start at least, Lester looked to be every bit worth his sizable cost.