First, some perspective. Jon Lester is the best lefthanded pitcher to wear a Red Sox uniform in over 50 years. Hopefully he will play his whole career in Boston but should he leave for greener pastures after his current contract expires following the 2014 season, he will do so most likely as the fourth best pitcher by almost any measure behind three fellas named Roger Clemens, Cy Young and Pedro Martinez. According to Baseball Reference Play Index Wins Above Replacement, since 1920, through age 26, only Clemens has been better for the Red Sox. We’re talking a total superstar, and already a player of historic importance as far as the Red Sox are concerned.
Looking more narrowly at how he stacks up in today’s game, he’s on the very shortlist of top hurlers. For consistency’s sake, we can stick with B-Ref’s WAR. The list below shows how Lester stacks up since 2008, his first full season.
After Halladay, he’s right in the mix for best pitcher in baseball.
There’s not really any bad news here but let’s nitpick a bit, shall we? In 2010, Lester’s strikeouts were down a tick and his walks were up significantly. He also had the lowest balls in play average since 2007, which strikes me as especially lucky given how shaky Boston’s defense was last season. He also had a HR/FB% that was well below league average.
Taken together, one might interpret these data point as something of a red flag. And I’d say it’s conceivable that Lester may have taken a small step backwards last year. But when you dig a little deeper, it more likely is the result of a pitcher maturing. We’ve seen this with other pitchers like C. C. Sabathia: more contact, fewer strikeouts, the same great results. Lester tinkered with his repertoire in 2010, throwing fewer fastballs and curves, while adding in more cutters and change-ups, two pitches that tend to help induce ground balls and weak contact more generally. This helps explain the walk rate spike, too. If you throw more of the pitches you haven’t in the past, and fewer of the ones you’ve grown accustomed to, it stands to reason that your control could slip a little.
Not that it was drastic, but it seems strange for a top performing player to alter his approach like Lester did in 2010. But like the pre 2010-2011 Tiger Woods seemingly always tinkering with his golf swing with great success, Lester has the talent to undertake such a project without compromising his performance. And if it works out, if Lester can go even deeper into games while throwing fewer pitches, then it could very well make him even more valuable to the Red Sox. It will be an interesting phenomenon to watch in 2011.
Photo Credit: Cleveland Leader