BOSTON, MA: Jon Lester #31 of the Boston Red Sox wipes the sweat off of his face while walking back to the dugout against the New York Yankees in the first inning during the game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was on Sirius XM radio, and, given it's the non-mathematical halfway point of the season, had quite a bit to say about various roster topics. Alex Speier picked out the choice quotes over at WEEI.com -- be sure to go there to check all of it out -- but there are a few items that merit further discussion here.
Valentine was, unsurprisingly, asked about starter Jon Lester, who has struggled at times in 2012, and has been labeled as a potential trade chip since he's under contract for a few more years. Valentine had both a diplomatic -- and likely accurate -- answer to this, saying that, "I think that the only thing that Jon Lester is not happy about is that his BABIP is higher than it's ever been in his career and the ball keeps finding holes when they're hit off the end of the bat or off the handle."
Lester owns a .326 batting average on balls in play for the season, but things have been worse as time goes on: over his last eight starts, a stretch that began with seven strikeouts and no walks against the Tigers in 6-2/3 innings on May 30, Lester has a .370 BABIP. He's striking hitters out, with 53 punch outs in his last 51 innings, and he's limiting walks, with just 10 in that stretch -- good for 1.4 walks per nine, a huge reversal from the 100 innings that came before that, stretching back to last July. The BABIP is killing him, though, and while part of that is likely due to Lester just being in the strike zone so much, the sheer volume of whiffs makes it hard to believe that it's because he just doesn't have it anymore.
Balls finding holes in the infield hasn't been a huge problem for him, at least relative to the league average. Grounders have a BABIP of .234 in 2012, while Lester is at .231. The same goes for liners: Lester is at .722, while the league sits at .720. Fly balls, on the other hand, have a major discrepancy: Lester's fly balls have a .198 BABIP, which doesn't sound huge, but the league allows a .138 BABIP on them. Because of this, Lester has allowed an OPS of 1055 on fly balls, whereas the league is at 843.
Some of those might be mislabeled, and could just be liners, but oftentimes it's liners incorrectly labeled as fly balls by scorekeepers because they are caught, rather than liners becoming fly balls for becoming hits. Lester's fly balls keep Wee Willie Keelering their way all over the outfield, and it's ruining Lester's ERA and his season.
As said, some of that's on Lester's constant presence in the strike zone, but it's also not new. Lester allowed a .186 BABIP on fly balls in 2011, and .196 in 2010, when he had a Cy Young-caliber campaign. Those are all worse than his early-career BABIP on fly balls, but it's still not a new thing.
The grounders have been the new issue in 2012, the one that is helping to inflate his seasonal BABIP. In the past, Lester was much better than the league at keeping grounders from becoming hits, even in 2011, when Kevin Youkilis manned third base for much of the year, and 2010, when Dustin Pedroia was missing at second for halfa-year. Whereas he was up to 25 percent better at limiting BABIP on grounders in the past, this year, he's three percent worse, and it's having larger implications than the fly balls ever did. Of course, the fly ball BABIP never helped, but because he was so good elsewhere, it didn't hurt in the same way it does now.
Infield defense hasn't been a huge problem for Lester, in terms of who has been lining themselves up there. Pedroia has struggled at the plate, sure, but his glove has been its usual self. Mike Aviles has been a surprise with the glove at short, making up for his bat, even, an while Kevin Youkilis didn't help matters at third, there's been a whole lot of Will Middlebrooks at third, too. Valentine might just have this one nailed, in that the holes are always just a little too big, and it's ruining what should be an improving Lester campaign, one that has suddenly become far removed from our late- and early-season worries from the end of 2011 and start of this new season thanks to the return of his control and swing-and-miss stuff.