Jon Lester: Accountability and Increased Expectations
Jon Lester took a step back last year. Sure, he was an All-Star. Yes, he was a relatively reliable member of a patchwork staff for the Red Sox. Lester, however, was not elite. He did not even sniff the preseason Cy Young Award expectations that were bestowed upon him heading into 2011. The tall left handed pitcher has the potential to be not just good but great. When I say great, I mean really, really great. Everyone around baseball seems to know it—everyone with the exception of Lester.
Lester had his coming out party in 2008. The year before, he punctuated his recovery from non-Hodgkin lymphoma by returning to the Red Sox partway through the season and ultimately winning the fourth and final game of the 2007 World Series. Still, it wasn’t until about a quarter of the way through the ’08 season that Lester truly began to turn into that intimidating, power pitcher that fans have grown accustomed to. He threw two complete game shutouts that summer. One was against the Royals. Kansas City did not record a hit in that game. About a month and a half later, Lester went all nine frames against the Yankees in their house (their old home, not the glorified shopping mall they play in now). I was at that game in early July with a friend of mine. Lester pitched with the lead for the majority of the game. He worked both sides of the plate and was at his best when he busted the Yankees hitters in on the hands. When Lester is right, he makes batters beyond uncomfortable at the plate. It was classic Lester that night.
Lester would turn in similar performances throughout much of the next two seasons. From 2008-2010, Lester tallied an average of 207.1 innings per year. He struck out an average of 8.7 batters per nine innings. His ERA in an offensively stout AL East was 3.29 over those three years. Sign me up.
Let me start by saying that Lester did not have a bad 2011 campaign. In fact, it was quite good. He went 15-9, started 31 games, and received his second All-Star selection. However, Lester did not do what a pitcher of his caliber, at his age, entering his prime should do. He did not improve. Lester is like the kid in school who doesn’t have to study and still gets B’s. He’s that good.
Let’s briefly examine Lester’s 2011 season from both a scientific and not-so scientific perspective.
- He had an ERA of 3.47, the highest of any of his full seasons in the big leagues.
- The 191.2 innings Lester tossed was the lowest total since 2007, the season in which he returned from treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He appeared in only 12 games.
- Before last season, Lester recorded two complete games each of the previous three seasons. He had zero last year.
- In both 2009 and 2010, Lester fanned 225 batters. He struck out 182 hitters last season. That is a difference of 43.
- Consequently, he struck out 1.2 less batters per nine innings compared to 2010. That is significant, especially pitching the AL East.
The Eye Test
As I alluded to earlier, when Lester is at his best, there are very few pitchers in all of baseball who make hitters feel more uncomfortable. Part of that comes from his 6’4” frame. He is left handed, an attribute that is quite the commodity in baseball. Lester can also gas it. He is a guy who lives in the 93-96 MPH range. It is a treat to watch Lester pitch when he is going well because he assumes total and complete ownership of the game. It’s not your game, it’s not mine. It’s his.
It is that bulldog mentality that separates Lester from similar pitchers, but it was not always there last year. In 2011, I saw a pitcher who was perpetually going six innings, flat lining halfway through the fifth inning. He wasn’t owning games. He was temporarily occupying them.
From May 10th through June 7th, a stretch where Lester started six games, he did not once pitch into the seventh inning. Many people would respond to that by saying that the Red Sox are a ballclub that emphasizes the “big picture.” Don’t go full throttle the whole way so position players and pitchers alike have enough gas in the tank down the stretch and into October. But when it was time to bear down, Lester faltered. In his final four starts of the season, Lester averaged less than five innings per start and let up an average of 4.5 earned runs each time out. The tank was running on empty.
Let’s not be cute about it. Lester has become entirely too reliant on his cutfastball. Look, it’s a good pitch, and the guy has an excellent one—especially if it is used in moderation. In 2011, it seemed like virtually every time the lefty needed to make a pitch he immediately went to the cutter. At times, he made Mariano Rivera look like a knuckleball pitcher. Lester did not pass my eye test. His constant glaring in at the umpire after a call that didn’t go his way grew tiresome. He looked like a guy who lacked accountability and ownership.
Lester turned 28 years old just four days ago. He is about to enter the prime of his career. He is still young, and there is no doubt that he still has some maturing to do as a player. Lester may already have begun doing so as he did allow himself to be interviewed after reports surfaced about some of the starting pitchers drinking beer during games. I have a strong feeling that after last season’s embarrassing ending, Lester is going to have a heap of extra motivation heading into this year. There is no longer any room for excuses. Josh Beckett is an invaluable member of the Red Sox rotation, but it is time for Lester to claim the staff as his own in 2012.
Thank you to baseballreference.com for contributing the statistics used in this blog.