Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jon Lester Is Not An Ace

At 28 years of age, Jon Lester is in his prime. At least, he should be. Yet, Lester is having a miserable season, in which he can't seem to do anything right. Lester shows no signs of being the pitcher he once was from 2008 to 2010, when he posted a cumulative 3.29 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and was among the game's best lefties.

In each of those three seasons, Lester pitched at least 200 innings and he struck out at least 200 batters in two of them.

Yet, even before then, much was expected of Lester, a lefty who showed so much poise and promise.

After his 2006 rookie season, in which he threw 81.1 innings and went 7-2 with a 4.76 ERA, Lester was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Red Sox Nation held its collective breath hoping for good news. This was just a kid at the very beginning of a promising career.

Thankfully, Lester fully recovered.

Following successful treatment, Lester returned to the Red Sox midway through the 2007 season. HIs comeback was highlighted by a dramatic Game Four World Series clincher against Colorado, in which Lester pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings, giving up three hits and three walks while striking out three.

Lester became just the third pitcher in World Series history to win the series clincher in his first post-season start.

The Red Sox had a 23-year-old lefty who would be in their rotation for years to come, who had already pitched on the biggest stage and who had performed admirably. Things were looking up for Lester and the Red Sox.

In 2008, Lester went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and threw a no-hitter at Fenway Park. The Sox seemed to have their future ace. In each of the next two seasons, Lester continued to build on his success and established himself as one of the top young lefties in baseball.

But last season, things began to unravel for Lester, and that process has accelerated this year. Though he was named to the All Star team for the second consecutive season in 2011, and led the Boston rotation in wins and strikeouts, Lester took a step back. The lefty won 15 games but failed to reach 200 innings for the first time in four seasons and failed to strikeout 200 batters for the first time in three seasons.

When the Red Sox needed Lester to step up in September and be their ace, he failed to do so. Lester lost his last three starts and was never a stopper as the Red Sox wildly spun out of control. The team posted a 7-20 record that month, a historic collapse for a team that had been in first place for much of the season.

This year, Lester picked up right where he left off last September, showing futility far too often.

The Red Sox are 7-12 in Lester's starts this season. Lester got rocked again last night, lasting just four innings. It was the fifth time this season that he has not made it to the fifth inning. The lefty has not lasted past the seventh inning since May 14. Over his last two starts, Lester has given up 10 earned runs on 16 hits in 8 1/3 innings.

Think about that; the Red Sox have lost 12 of Lester's 19 starts. It's mid-July and he has a 4.80 ERA. In nine of Lester’s starts, he has either lost a lead or allowed a run to break a tie. That's your No. 1 starter, folks.

This is the guy that has been chosen as the Opening Day starter for two seasons running. He's the guy who had previously shown so much promise, potential and hope. He's the guy upon whom the Red Sox thought they could depend, on whom they placed so much responsibility. And Lester has failed to respond positively. When called upon, he repeatedly cannot answer the bell.

If he remains healthy, Lester should have about 14 more starts this season. If he somehow manages to average six innings per start in that stretch (which is not a given considering his performance this season), Lester would tack on another 84 innings to the 116.1 he already thrown this season. That would put him squarely at 200 in 2012. It could also prove to be the highlight of his season.

It should be noted that though Lester has been viewed as an ace and as the Sox No. 1 starter, there have always been questions about that status.

Yes, Lester threw the no-hitter. But some rather unremarkable pitchers have also done that. Just in the past decade alone, Anibal Sanchez, Jonathan Sanchez, Ubaldo Jiminez, Dallas Braden, Edwin Jackson, Francisco Liriano and Phil Humber have all thrown no-hitters. That's not exactly a who's who list, or a group of future Hall of Famers.

The point is, even an average pitcher can have a spectacular game, the likes of which becomes his career highlight. That's not to say that Lester is average, but make no mistake; pitching a no-hitter doesn't make someone a star or an ace. Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Grover Alexander and Lefty Grove, for example, never threw a no-hitter in their illustrious careers.

Lester has never won 20 games in any season. In 2010, he had 19 wins going into his final start of the year. In that big moment, instead of stepping up and winning his 20th game for the first time — for himself and his team — Lester melted down. He lasted just four innings, giving up a whopping eight runs on nine hits and five walks. Lester folded in a big moment, a chance at a personal milestone. And a victory would have given the Red Sox 90 wins that season.

Winning 20 games one season does not make a pitcher an ace. But it looks good on the resume and it helps make the argument a little stronger. Most aces win 20 games in multiple seasons.

Moreover, Lester has never won an ERA title or a strikeout crown either. If he wants to be thought of as an ace, he needs to win at least one of those. A couple of each and a few 20-win seasons would solidify the argument.

Let's be honest; Lester is not in the same category as Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay, Jered Weaver, David Price, CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels and on and on. Those guys are all bona fide aces.

Lester is not an ace and he has never even been an elite pitcher. He has been a very good pitcher and in most seasons would have been a No. 2 starter on most staffs. This season, he looks like a back of the rotation starter — at best.

In fact, instead of sending Franklin Morales ( 3-2 in five starts, 10 earned runs, eight walks, 31 Ks in 26 1/3 innings) back to the pen, wouldn't it truly be in the Red Sox best interests to send Lester instead?


Anonymous said...

Your standards for an ace are very high. How many of the pitchers on your list of aces have had multiple 20 win seasons?
Lester may have not won a strikeout crown. However, he was 4th in the league in K/9 in 2009 and 1st in the league in K/9 in 2010 (and 2nd in all of baseball).
He was 4th in Cy Young voting in 2010.
At his peak, from 2008-2010 you could definitely argue that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball - a top 10-15 pitcher in MLB. That is not a "#2 on most teams". His numbers during those years were comparable to Sabathia and Hamels those years.
He's clearly not the same pitcher nowadays, but don't rewrite history based on the "recent Jon Lester experience".
take a look at fangraphs or baseball-reference to see where he ranked those years in different categories.

Sean M. Kennedy said...

As I stated, Lester was very good for a stretch of three years. However, he has never won a Cy Young Award, never won a strikeout title, never won an ERA title and never won 20 games. By that criteria, I say he was never an ace.

This year may be an anomaly, and I hope it is. Take this year out of the equation and Lester was still never an ace.

Anonymous said...

If that's your criteria, than Hamels, Price, and Cain are not aces. They have never won 20 games, an era title, a strikeout crown, or a Cy Young award.

Sean M. Kennedy said...

Which makes the case that an ace is very rare. Not every team has one.

Even before Lester's struggles, which go back to last September, I contend that he was never an ace. He was a very good pitcher, but not an elite one.

Since September 1, 2011, Lester has a 6-10 record, a 4.93 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP. In Lester's 25 starts since, the Red Sox are 8-17.

If Lester, Hamels, Price and Cain were all free agents this winer, I'd take the latter three over Lester.