By TJ Horgan
There is no denying that Jon Lester, so far, is in the midst of his best season in the majors. Despite having seven losses already, which can almost undoubtedly be attributed to the Red Sox’s underwhelming amount of run support, Lester is maintaining a 4.6 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which is second in the MLB. His ERA is also ninth-best in the MLB (2.52).
Red Sox fans are generally on one of two sides regarding their opinion of Jon Lester. The first side is something along the lines of, “Lestah is an ACE! Roll with him until he stops pitchin’!” The binary is a polar opposite, however, and usually comes from a local sports talk show host saying, “When will Red Sox fans realize that Lester is not an “Ace!?!?” He is a number-two pitcher in many other rotations.”
In 2012, and, to some degree, 2011, the talk show host is spot on. However, other than those years, Lester has put up ace-eqsue numbers. In the years Lester has pitched over 100 innings (not counting 2011, 2012) he has finished outside of the top-10 in pitcher WAR only once, and that was in 2013 when he finished 17th (still making him, statistically an “ace”).
Jon Lester’s 2011 and 2012 years were flukes.
Jon Lester’s pitching skills were not present in Boston from 2011-2012. Guess who else was not present in Boston during that time? Pitching coach (and current manager) John Farrell.
Yes, John Farrell left the Red Sox in 2011 to manage the Toronto Blue Jays for two years. During that time span, the Red Sox completely deteriorated as a team, and Jon Lester pitched as though he were the antichrist Boston media dreaded having as an “Ace.”
In 2009 and 2010, Lester struck out opposing batters just above 26 percent of the time (2nd highest rate in the MLB in that time frame). Lester is currently striking out batters, yet again, at a 25.7 percent rate (tied for 11th). Impressive strikeout rates for a guy whose fastball only averages 91.7 miles per hour(47th in the MLB), huh?
Lester’s approach to pitching is not about velocity, or even movement, so much as it is about deception and placement. One of the most counterproductive qualities in a pitcher is the ability to create strikeouts solely through high velocity. Why? The chance of that pitcher becoming injured in a serious way is increased drastically…need I say Tommy John surgery?
At 30 years old, and seven full MLB seasons under his belt, Jon Lester’s ability to generate strikeouts with a below-average-speed fastball gives hope that he will be able to stay dominant longer than a pitcher who is raking quality numbers merely through velocity. Velocity almost always decreases with age, and if a pitcher can remain dominant despite the gradual decline in velocity, it can play to their advantage not just on the field, but in contract negotiations as well.