We’re all familiar with Jon Lester’s lengthy list of accomplishments on the field, not to mention his inspirational story away from the diamond as a cancer survivor.
The Red Sox hurler is a two-time All-Star, he pitched the clinching game of the 2007 World Series championship in his very first postseason start, he later no-hit the Royals in 2008, and he finished fourth in the 2010 Cy Young voting.
In short, there was a time when Lester was considered among the best lefthanded pitchers in all of baseball, with a pedigree that raised the question as to whether he would one day be mentioned alongside the all-time greats.
At 29 years old, Lester’s novel has changed.
The Sox pitcher got his first taste of the majors at the age of 22 in 2006, and from that season through the 2011 campaign he compiled a 76-34 record, good for a ridiculous .691 winning percentage (Pedro Martinez finished his career with a .687 winning clip). Lester’s 3.33 earned run average over his first four full seasons starting in 2008 was nothing to scoff at either.
Then came 2012. Well, in truth, the troubles began in September 2011 and coincided with Boston’s meteoric collapse. After surrendering just one run over his first two starts of the month, Lester allowed 18 runners to score in 19.2 innings spanning his final four trips to the mound. A season ERA of 2.93, which would have been a career-best, ballooned to 3.47. For Lester, the offseason had arguably come just in time.
The 2012 season was about as ugly for Lester as it was for the 69-win Red Sox. The team’s opening day starter went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA, career-worst rankings across the board. He was healthy; he just couldn’t get out of his own way.
This season seemed to mark a turnaround when Lester was reunited with former pitching coach and new manager John Farrell. Among other goals, it was hoped Farrell would come to Boston and rejuvenate the careers of both Lester and Clay Buchholz.
Lester jumped out to a 6-0 start with a 2.72 ERA before losing his way. The hard-throwing lefty is 8-6 on the season with a 4.58 ERA in 20 starts, those numbers inflated by a lousy 2-6 record and 6.27 ERA since May 15. This time, it’s not the team; the Sox lead all of major league baseball with 58 wins. It’s just Lester.
“I don’t think I’m a different pitcher,” Lester said after Saturday’s loss in Oakland. “Same pitcher, different results. Stuff’s the same, mindset’s the same. It’s about execution. When it comes down to those times in a game where you need to execute pitches and not allow runs to come across the plate, I just didn’t do a good job of that.”
He nailed it: it’s about execution, and that’s one of the most glaring areas the former Cy Young candidate has changed.
Since 2008, the following year-by-year averages represent Lester’s opponents’ on-base percentage with runners in scoring position and two outs: .250, .274, .200, .304, .330, and .386.
That’s an ugly trend. Over the last two-plus seasons, when Lester has needed to get someone out at a pivotal point in a game, he has been remarkably ineffective for a pitcher of his previously-displayed talent.
All told, the once-perceived ace of the Red Sox staff is 17-20 – a mere .459 winning percentage – with a 4.73 ERA since the start of the 2012 season. Making matters worse, Lester’s WHIP (walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched) has gradually risen since 2010, a fact mostly driven by hits in his case, and his strikeout numbers have dwindled from 10.0 per 9 innings in 2009 to 7.4 today.
None of the above is as a result of injury; the durable Lester has made at least 31 starts every year since 2008 (with 20 so far in 2013) and he’s averaged 204 innings a season. Moreover, his pitches-per-plate-appearance totals have consistently been around four in his career, and his velocity has been reasonably steady as well. One difference worth noting, however, is that he’s not relying on his secondary pitches (sinker, change-up, and curveball) nearly as much as he has in the past.
In addition, though Lester doesn’t always say what we want to hear – for instance, that the box score didn’t properly reflect how he threw the ball on a given night – he isn’t Josh Beckett. He doesn’t appear to have an attitude problem, or an aversion to working hard to make sure he’s physically ready to take the mound every fifth day.
His mental make-up, even after eight big league seasons, is a wonder. Lester battled confidence issues early in his career and it is hard not to posit now if he’s still thrown off his game when he doesn’t get the call he expects in a key spot. Add a lack of consistency to that equation and the results are, as we’ve seen, unpredictable.
It’s fair to ask: should our perception of Jon Lester be changing?
Few ever believed Lester could reach the heights of Martinez, Roger Clemens, or Randy Johnson, to name a few. Those men are all-time greats. The question was whether he could be an ace of his generation. Unfortunately, he’s third in line – at best – when it comes to aces on his own team at the moment.
It may not be a stretch to say Lester’s not as good as we once believed, but he certainly isn't as bad as the last 22 months have indicated. Admittedly, I am a little curious how he’s been affected going from working with Jason Varitek to Jarrod Saltalamacchia but top talent overcomes obstacles, even a change in battery mates.
Lester has at least one more year in a Red Sox uniform because it’s almost impossible to imagine Boston not picking up his $13 million option for 2014. Granted, it’s somewhat amazing that it’s even a question these days, but I have little doubt he’ll return. Regardless of what his numbers show over the last two-month sample or two-year big picture, Lester’s age, potential, ability, and the fact that he’s a big lefty still classify him as an asset, not a liability. Even with his struggles, I’d pick him to start a playoff game tomorrow over Ryan Dempster or Felix Doubront.
“I’ll just keep plugging away,” Lester said following that loss to the Athletics. “The work hasnt stopped, the mindset hasn’t stopped. I’ll come back out the next go-around and come back with the same stuff I had tonight, both on the mound and in my head. I feel like I’m real close.”
We all hope so.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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