With spring training underway and the start of the season close behind, it's time to start to preview the players who could -- for better or worse -- impact the 2013 Red Sox. First up in this daily series, Jon Lester, who needs to anchor the Boston rotation.
It's not overstating things to say that Jon Lester might be the most important player on the 2013 Red Sox. He might not be the most valuable when all is said and done, when you're talking about pure win value, but a return to form after a disastrous 2012 campaign is the key to Boston succeeding on the mound: without Lester, a rotation with other question marks won't have the answers the Red Sox need in order to compete.
Lester managed to throw 205 innings, but other than that the results were poor. Mechanical issues kept Lester from commanding the ball as well as he had in the past, and this led to reduced strikeouts and increased balls in play. As the problem worsened, and it became more trend than temporary event, Lester's entire game unraveled. In his first 10 starts, he owned a 4.72 ERA, but in the 10 following games, disappointment became disaster, with Lester posting a 6.22 ERA and .380 batting average on balls in play. Luck can play a part in BABIP, but Lester was failing to keep the ball down, and there were even whispers out of Toronto, following Lester allowing nine runs to the Blue Jays on July 22, that his mechanical problems were essentially tipping his pitches.
It's bad enough if your stuff is flat, or up in the zone, as Lester's was thanks to his problem with opening up too early with his motion. Add to that your opponent knowing what flat pitch is coming, all they need to do is wait and see where they need to swing. The Red Sox changed Lester's pre-start routine following the Toronto disaster, having Lester focus on command by throwing a simulated game, rather than his norm, a bullpen session. While it didn't fix his issues completely, it was a good start, as Lester had his best run of the year over his final 13 starts: through those 85 innings, he posted a 3.92 ERA, 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and induced grounders much more often than fly balls. The latter point is very important, as it showed Lester getting back to keeping the ball down in the zone.
The strikeouts didn't return by then, but mechanical issues like this are difficult to fix in-season. Justin Verlander had a similar issue in 2008, and while he fixed it roughly a quarter of the way through the season, he only managed a 4.32 ERA and 7.9 strikeouts per nine from there on out. In 2009, however, Verlander was fully back, posting a 131 ERA+ and leading the league in strikeout rate for 2009. If you've forgotten just how good Jon Lester was before 2012, he owned a 135 ERA+ as a full-time starter from 2008 through 2011, and even led the AL in strikeout rate the year after Verlander -- just five other starters pulled off the same ERA+ or better, while averaging 200 innings per year, in that stretch. As Verlander can attest, there's no reason that Lester can't bounce back and be that good again, if his mechanics are back where they're supposed to be.
Things would be different if there had been a worrisome velocity drop, or if Lester's stuff just plain didn't work anymore. But, the end of the year was encouraging on that front, and not just because it came at a time when that word wasn't tossed around the Red Sox very much. While it's hard to take much from spring training performances, Lester's first appearance of the year against the Cardinals is similarly comforting.
Lester threw 24 pitches, and retired each of the six St. Louis' hitters he faced. That's an efficiency Lester struggled to maintain for much of the year, but the real key, and the reason that you can't read into spring training appearances too much outside of even the normal caveats, is whether or not Lester can do that consistently. He had plenty of moments in 2012 where things seemed to be righting themselves, but until the end of the year, none of that ever came clustered together -- even within starts.
That doesn't mean we can't possibly know which version of Lester the Red Sox are getting. If his mechanics are where they need to be, and he can consistently command the ball as he was always able to prior to 2012, then it's a good sign for the upcoming season. If not, however, then the Red Sox' rotation will be in trouble in the upcoming season. Thankfully, the chances of a Lester rebound were high even before the optimism of spring could be buttressed by Grapefruit League appearances.