There are quite a few Red Sox fans disappointed with the performance of Jon Lester in 2013. His excellent start to the year didn't help things, as it looked like a complete return to his pre-2012 form, but even as he's slid backwards towards a new set of expectations, he has remained valuable for the Red Sox. He hasn't led them to first place in the same way he used to be capable, but he's certainly done his part to help keep them there.
Breaking Lester's season up into three distinct sections tells the story. First, you had his performances from April through June 6, a time frame that includes his first 13 starts of the season. In those 13 games and 85 innings, Lester averaged nearly 6-2/3 frames per start, posted a 3.60 ERA, and struck out 2.7 times as many batters as he walked. He wasn't Boston's ace, like he was back in what seems like a long ago time by now, but he was a more than serviceable second starter during a stretch where John Lackey was out with an arm injury and slowly gaining steam in his return from Tommy John.
We're going to skip ahead a little, to June 27, to look at Lester's last 10 starts, including Monday's 8-1/3 inning affair against the Giants. In this grouping, Lester has a 3.34 ERA, again with about 6-2/3 innings per start, and over three times as many punch outs as free passes. Add these two groups together, and you've got all but three of Lester's starts for the 2013 season, and a combined ERA of 3.49 with 6-2/3 innings per appearance and a 2.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
His season line is worse than all this, and as you might have guessed, that's because of the three starts we haven't discussed yet. Those, contained in a three-start stretch in June, have made Lester's work look worse than it's actually been. That's not to excuse the starts, mind you: Lester's mechanics faltered, much like they did during times in 2012, and that's on him. Acting as if he's been unreliable and inconsistent, though, is a disservice to what he's accomplished even with those three starts included.
In those games, Lester allowed 17 runs in just 15-1/3 innings of work, while striking out 14 batters against 10 walks. Six of his 18 homers on the year came in just those three games -- his home run rate the rest of the year looks very similar to that of Lester at his peak. Again, we're not scrubbing them from the record, but Lester packed together a significant portion of his awfulness into one teeny stretch -- 23 percent of the runs he's allowed all season came in these three contests.
So, while Lester hasn't had a complete return to his dominant past, he's still been a highly reliable piece in the Red Sox rotation. Even with those three poor starts on his record, he has a 103 ERA+ and 4.09 ERA, and is on pace for over 200 innings for the fifth time since he became a full-time starter back in 2008 -- those innings are significant by themselves, as a look back to last year reminds: only 31 starters logged at least 200 innings, out of the 150 starting slots available around the league, and of the 286 pitchers who started a game. Even if Lester were only average when all is said and done, there's huge value in that volume of average.
He's been very similar to the Lester that showed up for the final 13 starts of 2012, after the club worked with him to fix his command following his decimation at the hands of the Blue Jays in late-July -- in those final 13 games, Lester posted a 3.92 ERA, with about 6-2/3 innings per outing, and a 2.2 K/BB, bringing his ERA for the season mercifully below five.
He's been better than that in 2013, further removed from the mechanical issues that plagued his 2012. The trio of June starts is a black mark on his season right now, but if he can keep his mechanics in order the rest of the way, he'll finish in a stronger place than his to-date numbers suggest. That will be huge for the Red Sox, even if it isn't quite the Lester of old.
This is Lester's final guaranteed season with Boston, as he has a club option for 2014. With the way he's pitched, the $13 million he's set to make makes too much sense for the Red Sox to pass up, and another season like this one would make him a candidate for a qualifying offer and, were he to leave, compensation pick. That's well down the road, of course, with another year and change to get through before any of those discussions should happen. But considering where things stood with Lester roughly a year ago, there has already been significant improvement in his game -- improvement that's helped the Red Sox maintain their AL East lead.
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