It's been a tough year for Jon Lester, mostly because of who he has been in the past. He led the American League in strikeout rate in 2010, and finished fourth in the Cy Young for his efforts. He entered 2012 on a three-year run where he averaged 32 starts and 201 innings per season, all with a 132 ERA+ (10th-best in the majors in that stretch, minimum 500 IP), 9.5 strikeouts per nine (fourth-best), and a 2.9 K/BB. A down year would be hard to accept given that dominance, but to a degree, it's understood that's a thing that happens.
Lester's 2012 has been far more than a down year, though, as it's August 13, and through 147 innings and 24 starts, the left-hander owns a 5.20 ERA and a 6-10 record. Won-Loss records certainly aren't everything, but Lester's is telling the truth: he hasn't put his team in a position to win as often as he's set them up to lose, and both Lester and the Red Sox (9-15 overall in Lester games) have suffered for it.
The nadir of all this struggling came on July 22, against the Blue Jays. Lester allowed 11 runs in four innings, gave up four homers, walked five against just two punch outs, and overall pitched so poorly that it leaked from the Jays clubhouse that Lester was openly showing his pitches before he even released them. (That almost makes it sound like the Jays felt bad about how easily the drubbing came to them.) Lester's mechanics had been a bit shaky and inconsistent all season long, and against Toronto, it was worse than it had ever been. His velocity and stuff remained, but he couldn't locate any of it consistently, and worse, everyone at the plate knew what was coming.
This was the culmination of a long stretch in which Lester was missing bats and avoiding walks, but giving up a massive batting average on balls in play. He was throwing strikes, but not quality ones, and it's the latter portion that's essential: walks will hurt you, but leaving it in a hitter's wheelhouse is far more problematic. At least walks only hand out a single base at a time.
Lester has made four starts since this Toronto one, though, and the results are far more encouraging. He gave up four runs against the Yankees in six innings to begin the stretch -- given their lineup, that's not a bad outing at all. From that start, through Sunday's against the Cleveland Indians, Lester has a 4.05 ERA in 26-2/3 innings, with 29 strikeouts against six walks, and, possibly most importantly, just a .277 BABIP and two homers allowed.
That's not perfect, but ERA isn't exactly reliable over 30-inning samples, either. The 29 strikeouts and the low walk rate are encouraging, in that it's more of what Lester has been doing for the last couple of months, but this time in a way that isn't seeing him get hit all over the park. Sometimes, you have to take a few steps back in order to move forward, and that start against Toronto shoved Lester a good four or five steps in the wrong direction. On the plus side of that, though, it forced the Red Sox and Lester to look at this issue even harder, and figure out a way to counteract his problematic mechanics. The results aren't final, but they are encouraging.
Given the up-and-down nature of Lester's season, it's difficult to be too excited just yet about his recent stretch. However, given he's responded positively to his worst start of the year, -- one that jumped his ERA all the way from an already-disappointing 4.80 to 5.46 despite it being late July at the time -- you would be forgiven for saying Lester is back where he's supposed to be. Especially coming off of a six-inning start against the Indians that saw him strike out 12 of the Tribe, against two walks, while allowing just the two runs.
The Red Sox need a productive Lester back, even if he never becomes the 2009-2011 iteration of himself again. With their lineup -- one with a core that's in place for at least a couple more years -- Lester needs to be good enough to give the Red Sox a chance to win every time out. He's been that way as of late, and it's likely safe to think he'll be even better than that going forward if he's indeed fixed. That's great news for the Sox, who have Lester in town through 2014 if they so desire, especially with a winter full of potentially difficult questions about the rotation coming up. It's a shame it didn't happen sooner -- Boston's playoff chances would be much better right now had either Lester, Josh Beckett, or both hurlers been themselves earlier in the year -- but better late than never.
Even if the Red Sox don't end up making the playoffs this year, solving some of their riddles before season's end could go a long way towards making 2013 more enjoyable. Lester's struggles are one such predicament, but if things hold up, his has already been figured out.