June 9, 2011

The curious case of Jonathan Lester.

Jon Lester, shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Perfectly built as a power pitcher with a five deadly pitches and a poised warrior's mind.

Lester is already known as perhaps the best young left-handed pitcher in baseball. He throws a hard 4-seam fastball, a 2-seamer, a devastating cutter (his best pitch), a good curve and an increasingly effective change-up. He throws inside and out, up and down, hard and soft. He goes deep into games and stubbornly refuses to yield the lead. His focus never waivers. He is the last person another team wants to see on the mound. He is a brick wall.

His typical outing is 7 or 8 innings, allowing a run or two. Eight or nine strikeouts. And a win. He stops losing streaks, starts winning streaks and leads off the most important playoff matchups. His typical season is 200+ innings, 200+ strikeouts and nearly 20 wins, an honor he has barely missed on more than one occasion. Every year, the experts pick him to win a Cy Young. This year, I drafted him to my fantasy team.

And he is 8-2 in 2011 after beating the Yankees on June 8, a win that put the Red Sox in a tie for first place. Everything is perfect! Except not exactly, and certainly not for the perfectionist that is Jon Lester.

Nearly every year, Jon suffers through an April funk before becoming automatic from May onwards. This year, however, that didn't happen. After losing on Opening Day, Lester fired off an impressive string of fairly dominant starts; he's been no small part of the team's rapid rise in the division. But on May 10, he fired off a dud in Toronto and hasn't been himself since.

Of last six starts, only two have been quality. His ERA in that stretch is over 5.00, and his WHIP is 1.70. He has hit nine batters so far this year; he's never hit more than 10 in an entire season. He is on pace for a .256 opponent BA and 1.36 WHIP, which would both be the highest marks since his first ace-like season in 2008. He still finds a way to gut his way through each start and pitch just well enough to win, but doing that for an extended amount of time will tire out any pitcher. The season is exhausting enough.

So what's wrong, Jon? His fastball velocity, usually 93-96 MPH, is more like 92-94. His command is off, which has him either stuck in hitter's counts or unable to put someone away on a two-strike count. The walks and pitch counts rise, so he's having trouble going deep into games.

Even his body language is ugly. His shoulder flies open, he slaps at the ball as the catcher throws it back, he looks at the landing spot on the mound and works on it far too often. His shoulders slump when a pitch misses, and he screams at himself while walking off the mound.

It's possible Lester is hurt, but there has been little to suggest that so far. He still throws about the same number of pitches per outing, which the Sox probably wouldn't allow if he was injured. My theory is that he is suffering from mechanical issue. It would explain the shoulder flying open, the loss of command, loss of velocity and the general frustration Lester's been showing on the mound. He looks like a man fighting himself, desperately trying to get every part of the machine to work together.

All things considered, it could be much worse. His mediocrity hasn't hurt the one team stat that really counts; he is 4-1 since things started to go wrong. This proves both Lester's ability to bend without breaking and that there's merit to the phrase "better lucky than good." The enormous run support he has received -- over 8 runs per game -- has been the difference between between 8-2 and 5-5.

Taking two steps forward and one step back is fine for now, but this kind of support can't go on forever.

One of the Red Sox's key advantages over their AL East competitors is that they are strong in every major facet of the game: offense, defense, base running and pitching. But the pitching advantage won't hold unless their big aces pitch consistently ace-like, so Lester and the coaching staff have to work out the kinks quickly. Sooner or later, some new problem will develop, and a pennant-hungry team can't afford too many of them.

The most successful teams balance a small number of weaknesses against a large number of strengths. If Jon Lester gets back to being one of the top pitchers in baseball, the Red Sox will remain one of baseball's best teams.

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