Boston Red Sox: Are Beckett, Lester Enough Pitching to Make the World Series?
Remember at the beginning of this season when pundits were coming out of the woodwork to tell everyone just how stacked the Red Sox are going to be?
Much was made of their vaunted offense, but we were led to believe that there was reason to be excited about all the new arms Theo added to the bullpen. And it was pointed out to us that if Jon Lester remained Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz kept on getting better, Josh Beckett found his old ways, and John Lackey reminded himself to not throw hanging sliders in 3-1 counts, the BoSox rotation would be rather formidable.
As it turns out, only a few of those if-then scenarios came true. The Bobby Jenks and Dennys Reyes experiments were disasters, Buchholz is likely done for the season, and John Lackey has had another abysmal season on the mound.
Thankfully, Beckett and Lester have been solid at the top of the rotation giving them a good one-two punch to go along with their big bats.
But, is that pitching tandem truly enough to carry the Red Sox to another title?
Is Jon Lester Truly as Good as We Think He Is?
So about Jon Lester’s basic statistics are this season...they’re pretty darn good! He has the lowest ERA of his career to date (3.16), his lowest WHIP ever, his second lowest rate of hits per nine innings ever, and his walks per nine (3.3), and strikeouts per nine (8.5) are better than his career averages. For the most part, Jon Lester has mostly followed through on what has been expected of him since officially becoming the ace of the staff on Opening Day.
The operative word here is “mostly.”
He leads the team in wins, he eats innings, and when he’s on there are few better. Jon Lester’s problem is that when he’s not firing on all cylinders, he’s getting knocked around. And this has pretty much always been the case.
For his career, Lester has given up 8.2 hits for every nine innings pitched. It’s 7.5 this year. Not a terribly significant drop off. For the last four season’s Lester’s WHIP has fluctuated between 1.2 and 1.3 and that’s no different this year as he’s toting a 1.202 mark in that category. That’s not bad in the WHIP department, but it is significantly lower than what most of the other “aces” are putting up.
Amongst all major league starters that qualify, Jon’s WHIP is 35th best in the league. Amongst lefties, he ranks eighth behind Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Ricky Romero, David Price, CC Sabathia, and CJ Wilson. His career low in ERA is only good enough for 26th best overall, and his FIP of 3.78 is only the 54th best in the bigs and just a hair better than the Pirates’ Paul Maholm.
Compared to everyone else, Jon Lester has been fairly average. His great winning percentage (.684, and his career .705 is the best amongst all active pitchers) is what has protected the hurler from losing his ace status.
Further Analysis of Jon Lester
Watching Jon Lester pitch can either be a lesson in how power lefties should operate, or it can be like watching the smartest kid in the spelling bee stutter and stumble his or her way through the word “frustrating.”
Lester has thrown over 100 pitches in 18 of his 24 starts. In those 18 starts, he reached the seventh inning eight times. In the 10 games where Lester threw over 110 pitches, amazingly, he made it to the seventh just four times.
While all that says a lot for his stamina, it doesn’t aid the argument that Jon Lester is efficient. He’s not at a Dice-K level of nibbling, but taking 120 pitches to get through six innings isn’t at all impressive.
What makes Lester bounce back from pressure easier than someone like Dice-K is his prowess in the stretch. Lester has always looked comfortable with runners on. He has left 80 percent of all allowed base runners stranded, and batters are only hitting .197 against him when there are runners in scoring position.
Numbers like that can be scary. It’s like he’s a “Heart Attack Ace.” He’s usually good for a win, but you might squirm a bit in your chair when watching him operate.
As much as wins are an overrated stat, and they are, they are still wins. Jon Lester finds ways to win games and he always has. He's not consistently pretty, he benefits from having a solid defense behind him, and he has a high-powered offense to support him as well, but at the end of the day Jon Lester wins.
At Least Josh Beckett Has Been Awesome
Josh Beckett has been the best pitcher in the Red Sox rotation this season, which is somehow both shocking and unsurprising. A lot of Sox fans, myself included, wondered out loud if Josh Beckett was nearing the end of his rope. The 2010 Beckett was just plain awful and hard to watch and his fastball appeared to be losing life and it was unclear as to how much of that velocity drop was due to his back injury.
Yet, we’re not totally floored with how good Becks has been. Remaining true to form, Josh Beckett followed a negative season with an overwhelmingly positive. If it weren’t for Justin Verlander, Beckett would be in the Cy Young discussion right now.
Like his partner in crime Lester, Beckett is currently touting the lowest ERA of his career. His sparkling 2.46 is only bested by three pitchers who are having remarkable years. The Red Sox fireballer trails only Johnny Cueto, Jered Weaver, and Verlander for the MLB ERA title. His FIP is at 3.40, which is pretty much where it has always been for Beckett in his good years.
His control appears to be back to normal too, as he’s averaging 2.33 walks for every nine innings, a little better than his career mark of 2.7.
Now that Beckett seems to have re-found a state of homeostasis, the Red Sox have formidable starters in both the one and two slots that they expected they would have at the beginning year. The only thing about it that’s slightly unexpected is that Beckett is the No. 2 in this equation, and not the young Clay Buchholz. If Clay is somehow able to return from the stress fracture in his back, the Red Sox will have some serious rotation depth. It’s a long shot that he does comeback, however, so we’ll continue to act as if the playoff hopes of the Red Sox hinge upon Lester and Beckett.
How Do the Sox Aces Compare to the Top Pitchers on Other Contenders?
Even at full strength, the Red Sox rotation It doesn't quite rival what San Francisco, Philadelphia, or Atlanta has. The World Series could be a pins and needles affair if the Red Sox season lasts that long.
When we compare the Red Sox top two starters to the rest of the top two’s amongst the AL’s likely playoff teams, what we get is a rude awakening.
BOS: Lester and Beckett: 23-11, 3.59 FIP, 1.084 WHIP, 9.4 WAR
NYY: Sabathia and Nova: 30-11, 3.48 FIP, 1.269 WHIP, 6.6 WAR
TEX: Wilson and Ogando: 25-10, 3.26 FIP, 1.159 WHIP, 7.3 WAR
DET: Verlander and Scherzer: 32-12, 3.35 FIP, 1.107 WHIP, 9.4 WAR
The Red Sox are tied with the Tigers for having the best combined WAR between their top two starters, but the Sox have more balance amongst their top two and the Tigers have mostly Justin Verlander to thank for those numbers.
That’s really the only good news for the Red Sox pitchers. Out of the four contenders, they have the worst FIP of the lot. Granted, the numbers are very close, but there’s no denying that the Red Sox are in slightly worse shape in that specific department.
Is the Red Sox Starting Pitching Rotation as Solid as Some Say?
Big deal, the Red Sox top two starters have an FIP BARELY worse than those combinations. I bet if you expanded those stats to their full rotation, they’d be the best.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but....
Red Sox Starters: 55-35, 4.19 FIP, 10.3 WAR
Yankees Starters: 61-37, 3.88 FIP, 12.7 WAR
Rangers Starters: 57-31, 3.76 FIP, 14.6 WAR
Tigers Starters: 54-42, 3.84 FIP, 12.8 WAR
...the Red Sox have the worst rotation out of all four AL contenders.
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
Even though Beckett and Lester are not the top tandem in the AL, it's true that their numbers are pretty close to everyone else's, the rest of their rotation has been lagging. A lot of this can be blamed on the injury to Buchholz. While it was assumed that he's not coming back, the young right-hander recently stated his belief that he will be back in uniform and on the mound this season. Upon his return, the rotation will regain its depth.
Also, Andrew Miller has shown glimmers of brilliance, and he could be a valuable arm in October if he keeps on pounding the strike zone as the Boston coaching staff has been telling him to. John Lackey has won a few games lately, but his second half numbers aren't looking much better than his first half at this point in time, so all we can do is keep our fingers crossed in regards to him.
Dan Wheeler and Matt Albers have proved to be decent signings, Jonathan Papelbon has been fantastic, and Daniel Bard is on the precipice of becoming an elite level bullpen arm.
One more thing: the Boston Red Sox can hit. A ton.
So cheer up, Red Sox Nation. So what if they don't have the best one-two in the AL? It's still pretty good, and their depth at bullpen, the big bats in the lineup, and their defensive abilities help account for most of their shortcomings.
So to answer the question of Lester and Beckett having what it takes to win it all, the answer yes, provided they get by with a little help from their friends.