2010 Boston Red Sox Preview: Will Jon Lester Continue To Improve?

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2010 Boston Red Sox Preview: Will Jon Lester Continue To Improve?
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Southpaw Jon Lester has evolved into the ace of the Boston Red Sox pitching staff. 

Two winters ago, there were many fans who urged the Sox to trade a package of players including Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury to Minnesota in exchange for then-Twins lefty Johan Santana. Potential, they argued, was not as valuable as production. Many of us pleaded with Red Sox GM Theo Epstein from afar to hold onto Lester in the belief he would develop into an ace. 

Lester stayed.  As anticipated, he and Ellsbury, along with RHP Clay Buchholz, 2B Dustin Pedroia, and 1B Kevin Youkilis have become the affordable nucleus of a ballclub that should be a perennial playoff contender. The Red Sox front office demonstrated patience. Theo Epstein stuck by his guns.

And their judgment has been vindicated.

Vindicated, in large part, because of the performance of Lester. He has gone 31-14, 3.31, since the trade rumors swirled around Fenway Park (Santana is 29-16 for the Metropolitans). Last year, after starting 4-5, he went 11-3 to finish the year at 15-8. He struck out 225 batters in 203 1/3 IP. (His xERA was 3.11 and FIP was 3.15 for the season).

He was even better in the second half, compiling a 7-2 record, with a 2.82 ERA. In his last six starts, he went 5-1, with a 2.52 ERA.

Many observers of the sport believe that a player's performance in the second half of one year is a solid indicator as to how he will perform during the following year. If they're right, Lester could be in for a heckuva year in 2010.  A slow start in April and May (an ERA in excess of 5.50) caused his ERA for the year to increase in comparison to 2008, but many of his other metrics improved in comparison to '08:

WHIP: decreased from 1.274 to 1.230
Hit rate: decreased from 8.6 H / 9 IP to 8.2 H / 9 IP
BA: decreased from .256 to .242
OBP: decreased from .320 to .301
Slugging: decreased from .368 to .366
K rate: increased from 6.5 K / 9 IP to 10.0 K / 9 IP
Contact rate: decreased from 81 percent to 75 percent

Only Giants righty Tim Lincecum and Tigers righty Justin Verlander had better strikeout rates among major league starting pitchers.  In other words, he had a better strikeout rate than any southpaw in the game.

He's also drawn an increasing rate of ground balls over the last two seasons (his GO/AO rate has increased from 0.65 in 2007, to 1.32 in 2008, to 1.38 in 2009), so he too should benefit from the anticipated improvement in the ballclub's infield defense.

So, what kind of numbers will he put up in 2010?  As I've mentioned previously in this series, I am not a devotee of the most widely-used projection systems: CHONE, Bill James and PECOTA. 

They all have problems. CHONE projections tend to be strong for hitters but weak for pitchers. The PECOTA system has the opposite problem—it is strong for pitchers, but weak for hitters. And while Bill James is well-known and an employee of the Red Sox, his annual projections are consistently overly-optimistic.

I prefer the work done by Ron Shandler (who is the godfather of ‘fanalytics’) and Mike Podhorzer (the new kid on the block).

Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster is must-reading for any baseball fan, especially if he/she is a fantasy baseball aficionado.  Shandler and his minions do great work.  They can be found at BaseballHeadquarters.com .

Podhorzer’s predictions at fantasypros911.com went 42-0 when compared head-to-head with other projection systems last year. Seriously, folks, if you don’t know about fantasypros911.com , it’s time that you take a look. Great stuff!

So what do these two systems project for Beckett for the upcoming season?

Shandler: 16-6, 3.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP… 210 IP, 210 K
Podhorzer: 16 wins, 3.43 ERA, 1.22 WHIP… 210 IP, 205 K

It is going to be hard for Lester to improve over last year's performance; but, that doesn't mean he won't do it.  He has a LOT of upside, and if he can get off to a good start it would appear he could win 20 games.

Based on his second-half performance I think he will take the next step in his progression towards becoming a Cy Young Award winner. Assuming good health, I think he'll win 19 games and drop his earned run average below 3.00:

SOX1FAN projection: 19-8, 2.97 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 214 IP, 228 K

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