Jon Lester is Both Underrated and Overlooked

Just days removed from being named the Red Sox's Pitcher of the Year, as voted on by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Jon Lester once again finds himself lost amidst some of the more established names that help make up Boston's starting rotation.

Despite his recent accolades, the signing of Lackey leads many to regard Lester as the team's number three starter by default, behind both Lackey and Josh Beckett.

The initial reaction to John Lackey's 5-year, $82.5 million dollar contract was geared towards its effect on Josh Beckett -- his expiring contract a particular area of interest in the matter. However, the extra motivation provided by Lackey is not lost on the other member of the "big three," Jon Lester. 

Who are the best left-handed starting pitchers in Major League Baseball?

Present the above question to almost any baseball fan outside of Boston and you'll likely hear the same few names; Cole Hamels, Johan Santana, Cliff Lee, and C.C. Sabathia. In very few instances will Jon Lester's will be offered as an answer, and certainly not before the aforementioned names, an injustice that is likely to change very soon.

As stated earlier, the Red Sox recently signed the top available pitcher via free-agency, John Lackey, to a long-term deal worth over $80 million dollars. With Josh Beckett eligible for free-agency himself following the 2010 season, many have speculated that Boston may potentially be preparing to part ways with the right-hander who has been regarded as the staff ace for the last few years, leading many to wonder what effect Lackey's contract will have on Josh. Does Lackey provide Beckett with an added element of motivation to prove that he is still the 'ace' of the Sox's rotation? There's no doubt that the situation merits a high level of interest, but once again, we seem to be overlooking someone.

Let's look at some numbers over the last two seasons. Who's the real 'ace' of the following two pitchers?

                    Record    ERA       IP       CG    SHO     BB      SO     WHIP   

Pitcher A:     27-16      3.94    386.2       5         2       89      371      1.19

Pitcher B:     31-14      3.31    413.2       4         2      130     377      1.25

It's hard to make a truly convincing argument for either of the two. However, consider this statistic (brought to us by Baseball Prospectus):

STUFF Rating- A rough indicator of the pitcher's overall dominance, based on normalized strikeout rates, walk rates, home run rates, runs allowed, and innings per game. "10" is league average, while "0" is roughly replacement level. The formula is as follows: Stuff = EqK9 * 6 - 1.333 * (EqERA + PERA) - 3 * EqBB9 - 5 * EqHR9 -3 * MAX{6-IP/G),0}

Pitcher A: 30 rating (10th in the league in 2009 amongst pitchers with at least 150 IP)

Pitcher B: 39 rating (4th in the league in 2009 amongst pitchers with at least 150 IP)

Starting to lean towards Pitcher B?

As you may have guessed by now, Pitcher A is Josh Beckett. Pitcher B? Jon Lester. Again, I ask, who is the real 'ace' of the Red Sox's rotation heading into 2010?

As I did entering last season (evidence found here -- always fun to look back at these), I predict that Lester will yet again be the Red Sox's most valuable pitcher next year, as well as an early favorite to win the American League's Cy Young Award.

While many debate who is the Red Sox's number one pitcher entering the season, not everyone even bothers to include Lester in the discussion. I am by no means belittling the importance of Josh Beckett to Boston's rotation, and in no way am I saying that Lester should be considered the unanimous choice as the Sox's 'ace', but how about just a little recognition outside of the city of Boston? What has become lost in all the talk surrounding Lackey's effect on Beckett is just how Lester will respond this season. 

My guess is that Lester uses his uncanny ability to fly under the radar to again post numbers that will make him a strong consideration for not only his third-consecutive Red Sox Pitcher of the Year Award (something that has never been done before), but a front-runner for the Cy Young Award as well. In the event that Boston makes the post-season again in 2010, will Lester be handed the ball for ALDS Game 1, as was the case in 2009 against the Angels? Although only time will tell how that scenario plays out, I know who I want with the ball. I think the 2010 regular season will change the minds of those who are not already in agreement with me.

Imagine being named your team's Pitcher of the Year for the second consecutive season (a feat only accomplished in Boston one time prior to Lester doing so [Pedro Martinez], and never before by a left-handed pitcher) only to find yourself still struggling to even be seriously involved in discussions regarding who your team's 'ace' is?

How's that for added motivation?

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