Jon Lester is not an ace.
Don’t tell me about four straight years of at least fifteen wins (2008-2011). I don’t want to hear about how he will be the starter on April 1 in Yankee Stadium. Thirty starts? 200 innings? Good. But not great. Lester may be confused about what it means to be a legit ace, but I’m not. There aren’t many, but you know one when you see one. Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia stop losing streaks. Not only do those players expect their respective teams to lean on them, but they embrace it. You can count on them. They’re dependable.
And for the past year and a half, Lester has been anything but dependable.
With that out of the way, it’s important to begin figuring out exactly what we can realistically expect from him in 2013. That Cy Young-type season that many of us have been waiting for is not coming. I feel pretty confident in saying that. At the same time, there is absolutely no reason why Lester cannot return to his very good (not great) form from a couple of years ago.
I’m going to keep this relatively simple. In 2012, Lester was downright bad. The southpaw consistently struggled early in ballgames, racking up high pitch counts, and often times, getting hit rather hard. Stats aside, the former 19-game winner did not look like himself. And the numbers lend credence to that.
Lester’s average WAR (wins above a replacement level player) from 2008-2011 was 5.2. His WAR last season? 0.4. He went 9-14 last season. His ERA was 4.28. Raise your hand if you think that those numbers will improve.
No Beckett? No problem
Josh Beckett will never, ever, ever receive the credit he deserves in New England–injuries and a poor attitude sealed his fate with most fans. In 2007, Beckett’s right arm almost single-handedly won the Red Sox their second World Series Championship in four years. You should be proud to have the opportunity to say you watched him pitch that season, especially in October. But that doesn’t mean that his influence will be missed.
For the first time in Lester’s career, the Red Sox will open the season without Beckett in their rotation. I’m not a hater of the Texas native, but it’s impossible to simply dismiss the idea that some of his bad habits may have rubbed off on guys like Lester. Even if Beckett was still pitching for the Red Sox, Lester is his own man. He’s not a kid — he’s 29-years old. But still, Beckett is a guy that younger pitchers undoubtedly looked up to. Like or not, he was, for a period of time, a role model to pitchers who came up through the Sox’ system. The hope is that a different tone will pervade the clubhouse this season, espeically with regards to the starting staff. Will the extraction of Beckett lower Lester’s ERA a full run? Of course not. But I’m willing to bet it won’t hurt.
The Farrell Factor
During Farrell’s tenure as pitching coach (2007-2010) of the Red Sox, Lester experienced a great deal of success. He went 54-23, fanned 8.6 batters per nine frames, and posted an ERA of 3.40. It was the stretches of dominance during that four year period that raised fans’ expectations for Lester. In the offseason that followed the 2010 season, Farrell left Boston for an opportunity to manage the Blue Jays, not knowing that the Red Sox would soon have a managerial vacancy themselves. Lester’s 2011 campaign was not an abject failure–he finished year the year 15-9 with 124 ERA+ (adjusted ERA), both quite good. But that was overshadowed by his dismal finish to the disastrous season. Lester’s ERA in his final six starts was a robust 5.40. The Red Sox went 1-5 in those games, and the big lefty looked completely and utterly gassed. He walked too many hitters and allowed bad mechanical habits to persist.
Farrell did not return to Boston as the team’s pitching coach, so it would be silly to assume he will have as much involvement with the staff as he did from ’07-’10. It would be equally foolish, however, to think that Farrell will simply sit back and watch Lester repeat the mistakes he has been making for the past year and a half. Aside from pitching poorly, Lester has received criticism for his overall presence on the mound. Instead of seeing that mean, competitive Lester, we received the complaining, umpire-blaming version. Showing up umpires on the regular makes you appear like a six year old, and that’s never a good look. I believe Farrell (as well as new pitching coach Juan Nieves) will work to reallocate Lester’s focus towards the hitter, rather than the guy calling balls and strikes.
What to Expect
This isn’t exactly a contract year for Lester, but it is close. The Red Sox hold a team option for 2014 worth $13MM. I can’t really see them declining that option, but anything can happen. Either way, it is imperative for Lester to have a good year, not only for the Red Sox but for him personally as well. Nothing is standing in Lester’s way of having a year looks something like 16-8 with an ERA of 3.70.
He is not Verlander or Sabathia. We know that. But Lester is who he is, and over the years, we’ve learned that that typically means more success than failure.