BOSTON, MA: Jon Lester #31 of the Boston Red Sox walks to the dugout after being pulled by manager Bobby Valentine #25 in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Things have not worked out for Jon Lester in 2012, and while he's progressed in some ways as the season has gone on, he's also regressed in others. Sunday's start, in which he allowed nine runs in the first two innings to the Blue Jays, was the most explosive outing in the wrong direction for Lester since his April 17 start against the Rangers (seven runs, two innings, one 50-pitch inning). All told, Lester has a 10.42 ERA in July, as well as a .418 batting average on balls in play, and it's becoming more likely by the day that the BABIP isn't luck -- it's something Lester is doing that's causing it.
He's not getting the swings-and-misses he used to, relying on his command to get him strikes. The problem is that his command is off, and whenever his opponent is actually swinging, they're making good contact on a bad pitch. What's happening to Lester is very similar to what happened to Mark Melancon early in the season: he's not pitching inside, and he's opening up too much in his motion, allowing the hitter to see the ball early, giving them a leg up on whatever Lester is doing. It also hinders control, and to a degree, velocity -- Lester still has moments where he's effective, but the more pronounced the opening up is, the more he'll struggle, as July attests.
This is how you struggle when you're not injured. Justin Verlander, one of the game's top starters -- even more so than Lester when he's on his game -- dealt with something similar back in 2008. The result was a 4.84 ERA and 92 ERA+, and that was with Verlander figuring out how to solve most of the issue in the season's first couple of months. It's easy enough to identify the problem, but fixing a repetitive motion that you've become accustomed to takes more than just seeing it.
That's why Boston is shuffling around Lester's routines a bit. He's not going to throw his regularly-scheduled bullpen session on Wednesday, instead facing live hitters in a simulated game. They'll also keep him lined up for his next start, coming against the Yankees on Saturday, rather than skip him and give him the chance to work on things on the side more. That makes the results of the simulated game huge -- Lester is going to need to pitch inside effectively, and be able to spot his pitches where he wants them, and a simulated game at least gives the coaching staff a chance to see if he's able to do just that. Whether it carries over to the game is another thing, but at least the Sox are being proactive about this.
Boston didn't demote Clay Buchholz when he struggled in the season's first month-plus, and they're unlikely to do the same with Lester, unless, as Bobby Valentine said back when it was Buchholz in everyone's sights, they sense that he's given up. If it comes to the point where he is demoted, like Melancon and Bard were, then things have gone too far indeed.