The Boston Red Sox endured a miserable 93-loss season in 2012, with starting pitcher Jon Lester being one of the players who struggled the most. However, in looking ahead, there are a number of reasons why Lester can bounce back in 2013.
Before last year, the left-handed Lester had been Boston’s most reliable starter, going a combined 76-34 with a 3.53 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings in his first six major league seasons.
It all came apart for him last year, as he floundered to a 9-14 record, 4.82 ERA and 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 33 starts.
Still just 29 years old, Lester should still be in the prime of his career. Although he is trying to come back from his worst season, there are encouraging signs indicating that he can turn things around in 2013.
It doesn’t appear that health is an issue for Lester. He hasn’t experienced any lingering effects from a 2006 bout with cancer, which was before he became a regular in the Boston rotation in 2008.
FanGraphs.com shows Lester’s average fastball velocity in 2012 was 92 mph, just a tick below his career-high mark of 93.5 set in 2009-2010. However, that drop in speed shouldn’t raise red flags, unless it turns into a trend.
One of the primary issues encountered by Lester last year was his inability to consistently start games strong.
The first inning has always been an issue for him, as he has permitted a .335 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and a 4.48 ERA during that frame, the worst of any inning in his career.
Those first inning struggles only increased last season, as he allowed a .385 BABIP and 4.91 ERA, meaning he was frequently pitching from an early hole.
WEEI’s Stephen Hewitt wrote last year that Lester was shooting himself in the foot by how he started games. The southpaw agreed with that assessment:
It’s obviously not good. You have to get deeper in the game somehow. Too many pitches, too many foul balls, too many deep counts.
The poor first innings directly contributed to high pitch counts, another issue for Lester last season.
FanGraphs.com indicates Lester threw 3,424 pitches in 2012, representing the highest total of his career. His 16.7 pitches per inning was his highest average since 2007, when he was still a raw youngster trying to gain a full-time roster spot.
Starters know they will only throw a certain number of pitches each game. Although anecdotal, it’s reasonable to speculate that piling up early pitch counts creates pressure to get through subsequent innings more quickly, possibly leading to more fastballs and pitching to contact, which can cause disaster.
Lester may have also lost confidence in his cut fastball in 2012, which could have significantly contributed to his poor results.
The cutter used to be his out-pitch. Prior to the 2011 season, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney used stats from colleague Mark Simon to show that it was the most dominant cutter in the American League; even better than that of Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera, often hailed as the pitch’s master.
FanGraphs.com—who assigns a “Runs Above Average” value to every pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal—shows the cutter is by far Lester’s most effective pitch during his career. It accounted for a career high 25.1 percent of his pitches in 2011, but that figure tumbled to just 13.3 percent last season, as he relied more heavily on his sinker and changeup as secondary pitches.
Cutters run in on right-handed batters and away from lefties, making it a potentially effective pitch against all hitters if a pitcher has a good one. Lester may find himself getting more outs if he uses it more often in 2013.
The Red Sox may also want to investigate Lester’s ability to work with starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Since the start of the 2011 season, Lester has a 4.55 ERA and 234 strikeouts in 253 innings caught by Salty. He has a 3.44 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 144 innings when caught by anyone else during that time.
The discrepancy in Lester’s production when being caught by different battery mates comes in too large a sample size to ignore. It’s time to explore what has caused that and make changes if necessary.
The bad news is that there may be a number of smaller things that have caused him to stray from what had previously made him one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
The good news is that there is nothing to suggest that there are any large, overarching issues. An open mind and some close work with the coaching staff could be the keys in helping him make the appropriate corrections.
Boston fans may have been disappointed by Lester last season, but they shouldn’t give up yet because all signs point to him having a great chance of bouncing back in 2013.
Statistics via BaseballReference