Jon Lester made his 30th start of the season on Sunday, and in a coincidence that's part arbitrary end point, part actual tale of the season, it allows us to split his year up into three distinct groups of 10 starts a piece. It's been a very strange year, but it finally appears to be trending in the right direction, a good sign for the 2013 version of Lester. How he got there, though, is a bit odd.
April 5 through May 25
Lester began the year well enough, but early on, it was clear something was amiss. He labored through innings, was having difficulty finding the strike zone consistently, and by the end of May, was serving up homers far more often than Lester should. It was possible some of the mechanical inconsistencies were a holdover from the previous summer's latissimus dorsi injury, as Lester might have failed to fix the mechanical issues that shoulder problem had caused. Overall, in this 10-game stretch, Lester threw 61 innings, striking out 41 (six per nine) against 22 walks (1.9 K/BB), while allowing a homer per nine and inducing an even number of ground and fly ball outs. The lofty walk rate was a continuation of the previous season's second half, giving Lester a roughly 100-inning stretch of over four walks per nine, a sample that is sizable enough to have meaning for that particular stat.
May 30 through July 22
This is some of the worst pitching Lester has ever recorded in the majors. He averaged fewer than six frames per start. The strikeouts that were missing from his bag of tricks returned, as did his control, but his command still wasn't what it needed to be. The result? Despite a strikeout per inning, and a 3.7 K/BB, Lester gave up a .380 batting average on balls in play. Some of that might have been luck, but Lester couldn't hit his spots within the strike zone consistently. Strikes are good, but quality strikes are better, and Lester couldn't consistently throw quality strikes. This resulted in not just the inflated BABIP, but a 6.22 ERA and opponent line of .317/.358/.539 over those 59-1/3 innings. The topper for this unimpressive stretch was Lester's July 22 start against Toronto, in which he gave up 11 runs in four innings. The Blue Jays squad that told reporters after the game that Lester's mechanics were so off that they could tell what he was going to throw next, thanks to an overly open motion.
July 25 through September 16
The Red Sox changed Lester's pre-start routine a bit following this mechanical disaster, putting Lester into a simulated game situation rather than his standard throw-day in between starts. The hope was to get him to throw inside once again, and attempt to keep his front side from flying open, and so early, a bad habit that allowed the Jays to see what he was throwing early in his motion, as well as keep Lester from showing successful command of his stuff.
The results were solid in his first start against a powerful Yankees lineup, as Lester allowed four runs in six frames. Against many offenses, maybe that's not a quality start, but adjust for it being the Yankees, and we'll unofficially allow it. All told, in the 10 starts since the Toronto disaster, Lester has compiled 67 innings (and a season-best 6-2/3 innings per start) along with 7.7 strikeouts per nine, a 2.3 K/BB, 0.9 homers per nine, a 1.1 ground out to air out ratio, and a BABIP over 100 points lower than it was during his command-less stretch. The result? A 4.03 ERA, which, while not what you want from Lester, is miles better than the totally lost iteration accomplished in the previous 10 starts. Most importantly, his command seems to be back to where it needs to be, or at least a whole lot closer than it was.
It's not exactly vintage Lester, but pitchers, regardless of how good, don't always bounce back from mechanical issues like this immediately. The go-to example if Justin Verlander in 2008: he was pitching with his front side flying open early on, and it resulted in a 6.43 ERA through his first eight starts. Things were better from that point forward, but only in degrees, as Verlander, who had posted a 125 ERA+ the year prior, put up a 4.32 ERA in his other 25 starts. He led the AL in innings, strikeouts, and strikeout rate the following year, though, and of course, became the Justin Verlander we all think of today in the process.
That's not to say Lester is going to be an auto-Cy Young candidate from here on out, but it's a reminder that, just because he hasn't totally solved his various issues in 2012 doesn't mean he never will.