SEATTLE — Being named the Opening Day starter doesn’t make a pitcher an ace. A cursory glance at a few box scores will tell you that.
There are only a handful of ace pitchers in baseball. Guys like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw fit the definition. Matt Harvey looks like one, too. Maybe there are a few others.
Jon Lester had a chance to move into that category in 2010 when he won 19 games, pitched to a 3.25 earned run average and struck out 225 batters over 208 innings. The big lefty was a force and the Red Sox were poised to build their rotation around him.
The five-year, $30 million deal Lester was signed to before the 2009 season looked like an incredible bargain.
In the three seasons since, his ERA has climbed and his strikeout rate has dropped. A once imposing fastball has lost some power and Lester is now a pitcher who relies heavily — perhaps too much so — on his secondary pitches. Given that he’s only 29, such a transition seems a bit premature.
The Red Sox have accorded Lester the respect of starting on Opening Day in recent years. But that doesn’t make him an ace. It just makes him the guy who pitched the first game. Clay Buchholz was a better starter for the first two months of the season and now John Lackey is.
Lester is capable of good stretches (6-0 with 2.72 ERA in his first nine starts this season) and bad ones (2-5 with a 6.49 ERA in the 10 starts since). Add it up and he has a 4.60 ERA on the season.
Before you judge that harshly, realize it is comparable to Mark Buehrle, Tim Lincecum, R.A. Dickey, Yovani Gallardo, and Matt Cain. Those guys were all considered aces — or close to it — at some point, too. Pitching is capricious for all but a precious few.
Lester has fallen into a category that is difficult to define. He’s not one of the best, but he should be better than most. He’s a talented pitcher with a track record of success who is still healthy and relatively young.
“He’s a very good pitcher,” said manager John Farrell, a man qualified to make such judgments. “He’s evolving over time as he’s dealing with the number of innings he’s compiled. The velocity might not be that mid upper 90s that he was known for for a number of years. But, still, he’s got very good secondary stuff and he’s still a very, very good pitcher.”
That’s what made Monday night’s game against Seattle so troubling because it seemed the perfect stage for Lester to be at his best.
Lester was pitching in Seattle, a short distance from where he grew up, and was facing Hernandez. More importantly, he was starting for a battered team that had lost two straight.
The Red Sox needed Lester to solve their problems, if just for a night. Instead he exacerbated them by lasting only five innings. Farrell had the bullpen going in the fourth when Lester labored through a 39-pitch inning.
Lester didn’t get an out in the sixth inning. He ended up being charged with five runs and took the loss in an 11-4 setback.
Afterward, Lester complained that he pitched better than the box score indicated. It’s something he has said several times this season. He also mentioned that the Mariners fouled off what he thought were good pitches. That’s a sign of a pitcher who can’t put hitters away, something that has been dogging Lester for weeks now.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the game for Lester came in the fifth inning.
The Sox scored two runs in the top of the inning against Hernandez to tie the game at 2-2. But 41-year-old Raul Ibanez led off the bottom of the inning by clubbing an 0-and-2 cutter over the fence in right field.
Seattle had the lead back in an instant and never gave it up.
“I felt like I executed that pitch fairly well enough not to have that result,” Lester said. “Obviously he was sitting on it. It’s frustrating because it’s 0-2. But at the same time that’s the pitch I wanted to go to.”
Lester is scheduled to start again on Saturday at Oakland. From there, he should get another 12 or 13 starts before the regular season ends. That is ample time to prove what he’s still capable of.
There’s more at stake than just a playoff berth. The Red Sox hold a $13 million option on Lester for 2014. Barring injury, they’ll probably pick it up. That’s actually an acceptable rate for a mid-rotation starter and the Sox have a soft spot for players they draft and develop. They’ll trust in the idea Farrell can get Lester to pitch adequately.
But it’s not a lock. Lester is 17-19 with a 4.74 ERA over 52 starts since the start of the 2012 season. Maybe that $13 million would be better spent elsewhere if those numbers somehow get worse.
It has become popular to complain about Lester not being an ace. But that’s fruitlessly stating the obvious at this point. The question is whether he can do his part to get the Sox through this road trip and beyond.
It’s not about labels any more. It’s about figuring what kind of pitcher he is now and making that work.