Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester has enjoyed much success during his career, but it’s always seemed that he’s never reached his full potential. Declining production and his own surprising recent comments have further questioned whether he can ever really be an ace.
The left-handed Lester overcame a battle with a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2006 to become the winning pitching in the clinching Game 4 of the 2007 World Series.
After his postseason heroics, Lester won 65 games during the next four seasons, while never posting an ERA higher than 3.47.
His best season came in 2010, when he went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA and 225 strikeouts.
Lester appeared to be well on his way to becoming an ace after that string of successful seasons. WEEI’s Alex Speier pointed out that the southpaw was only the 16th pitcher since 1901 with four consecutive seasons between the ages of 24-27 to qualify for an ERA title and have an ERA+ of 120 or better. Of those 15 predecessors, nine are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
On the verge of true stardom, Lester’s numbers have gone down in the past two seasons, culminating in last year’s disappointing 9-14 record and 4.82 ERA.
He has been honest in acknowledging how poor his performance was in 2012, particularly in comments made to the Providence Journal’s Tim Britton. Lester said of the city:
It can be intimidating, especially when you have seasons like last year. You know you suck, and your teammates are trying to pick you up, and everyone else knows you suck, and you’re trying to break even on the deal. It’s tough.
Some numbers provided by FanGraphs.com offers possible explanations for Lester’s decline. His average fastball velocity of 92.0 mph last year was his lowest mark since 2008. Additionally, his cutter, which ESPN.com’s Buster Olney statistically proved was the best in baseball in 2011, was thrown nearly 50 percent less often in 2012 than the previous year.
Despite the decline in stuff, Lester has remained durable, throwing at least 191.2 innings in each of the past five seasons. Still just 29, it’s not unreasonable to expect him to return to being an effective pitcher, or perhaps even better than before, as long as he is healthy.
However, statistical indicators aren’t the only reasons to doubt Lester can ever become the true ace of a pitching staff. Recent comments he has made have rubbed some the wrong way about how he is approaching his struggles and future development.
He told WEEI’s Rob Bradford that he finds a lot of the expectations heaped upon him as unrealistic and unfair:
What next level is there? That’s the thing that frustrates me. People don’t consider me an ace or don’t consider me a frontline starter…What extra level is there to it? Am I supposed to win 25 games every year? It’s not possible.
How many games did I lose when I gave up three runs or less? I can’t control the outcome of the game. I can only control being healthy every five days and going out there and pitching. That’s what I consider an ace…I don’t know what people want from me for the next level. So I’m not concerned about the next level.
WEEI’s Kirk Minihane was disgusted with what he heard from Lester, writing:
It seems that Lester is offended by the possibility that some might expect him to be more than he has been. Again, no one has ever suggested Jon Lester should win 25 games. But there was an ‘extra level’ that many if not most anticipated Lester would reach, and for Lester not to think that level exists is telling at best and damning at worst.
Put it another way: Don’t ever expect that 22-6, 2.60 season from Jon Lester, because it sure seems Lester doesn’t expect it from himself.
Whatever Lester has classified himself as in the past, he is at least eager to regain that form, as he told Bradford:
The past two years have been kind of reality grabbers and knocked me back into thinking what I have got to do to get back to being me. I think the offseason was a good time to reflect and figure out who I am. Just look back and say, ‘This is me, and this is not me,’ and make adjustments off of that.
Lester will be the longest-tenured starter on Boston’s staff this season and has experienced the most previous success. Like it or not, any hopes for team success in 2013 will rest largely on his left arm, so his ability to embrace and produce in the role of an ace will be of the utmost importance.
Statistics via BaseballReference