I know this is not exactly breaking news for fans, but baseball is a crazy game. If you show me someone who says they predicted bad seasons for the Red Sox and Phillies, while the A's and Orioles would be in the playoff hunt until the very end, I'll show you someone who has had a pair of pants catch on fire. Even looking at individual players, there are huge surprises every year. Mike Trout was a highly touted prospect coming into the season, but no one could have predicted him leading the world in fWAR (8.3) and bWAR (9.3). Going in the other direction, Adam Dunn was one of the worst players in baseball last year, which was extremely unexpected. However, he has rebounded in 2012, posting a 119 OPS+ so far.
It is this path that the Red Sox hope Jon Lester can take. Baseball got the best of the formerly staff-ace this season, as he has struggled monumentally. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2008, this season has represented career-highs in home-runs-per-nine-innings, ERA, ERA+, and FIP, while he has recorded less strikeouts per nine innings than he has since 2008. Whichever way you slice it, Lester has been a bad pitcher for the Red Sox in 2012, and is a major contributor to this disappointing season.
As people look towards the 2013 season, a lot of the talk has been about what Ben Cherington and the rest of the front office will decide to do with all of this newfound money laying around after the mega-deal. However, in this writer's humble opinion, next season has everything to do with the starting rotation. If that rotation is going to succeed, a big part of that will be Jon Lester turning back into his old self. As I mentioned, it would be great for him to take the Adam Dunn path back, and return to an above average player after a down year. However, ask Scott Kazmir if that always happens. The truth is, baseball has a lot of randomness, and none of us truly know if he'll turn it around next season. With that being said, there is at least reason to believe that he'll be able to turn it around and get back to some semblance of the Lester we all knew and loved.
Firstly, there is no sugar-coating how bad Lester has been this season. He's currently sitting with a 4.99 ERA, bad enough for an ERA+ of 88, meaning he's been 12% worse than the league average. Prior to this season, his career-worst ERA was 3.47 in 2011, when his ERA+ was 125. Even if you prefer FIP to ERA, the results haven't been pretty. His 4.10 FIP is another career-worst, and significantly higher than last season's 3.83. For comparison's sake, this year's average ERA and FIP for starting pitchers have been 4.22 and 4.15, respectively.
While his season has been bad, some of his numbers do suggest that he has been bitten by the baseball gods in 2012. After allowing a batting average on balls in play below .290 each of the past two seasons, Lester's BABIP this year has been .316, which is 14 points higher than his career average. Additionally, he has struggled with men on base, posting just a 66.5% strand-rate, which is more than eight points lower than his career average, and almost six point below the league average. Finally, his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio of 14.4% is a career-high, and a little over two points higher than the average for starting pitchers.
Of course, blaming all of this on pure luck is crazy, just like saying it is 100% Lester's fault would be. However, I would expect at least some of those numbers to trend back towards his career-norms, which would definitely bring his run prevention back to Earth.
Even though he has been on the receiving end of some bad luck this season, he still clearly has some things to work on before next spring rolls around. First and foremost, he needs to start striking more guys out. This year, he has struck out just 7.5 batters per nine, a big step back from striking out at least 8.5 per nine each of the past three years. In his age-28 season, he has seen a bit of a drop in his velocity, which actually began last year. This could explain a bit of his dip in strikeouts (He had 9.7+ K/9 seasons in both 2009 and 2010), but the seven-tenths of a MPH drop from his 2010 average wasn't so significant he should be losing two strikeouts every nine innings.
One noticeable difference has been a change in his go-to pitch to put a batter away. In 2009 and 2010, he turned to his curveball in the majority of his two-strike counts, especially against right-handers. However, in the past two seasons, he has shifted his focus to the cutter in those counts. The shift in emphasis between these two pitches can be seen greatest in two-strike counts, but it has happened everywhere. This has perhaps led to his inflated home run numbers, as his cutter has led to home runs 0.11% more of the time than his curve over his career, and leads to a fly ball 1.29% more of the time.
As I said at the start, baseball is a crazy game. We all have fun making our predictions, and we all tend to think we know what's going to happen in the upcoming season. If this year has taught us anything, it's to always expect the unexpected. However, that doesn't mean we can't use hints to make more educated guesses of what's to come. Chances are, Lester will see some more luck go back his way. Obviously, it's not that simple, and he has his work cut out for him this winter, as next season is huge for both this franchise as well as how Lester will be perceived as a major-league pitcher. However, if you'd allow me to make one of those predictions I just bashed, he has a very good chance of once again becoming a productive pitcher again in 2013.