Jon Lester has started off the 2014 season about as well as a pitcher realistically can. He's leading the league in innings with 29, which he's compiled over his first four starts of the year. He's struck out a batter per inning, walked just four, owns a 2.17 ERA, and has been so efficient that he's on pace for almost 240 innings. It's just April, so expecting this to continue exactly so for the duration of the season is asking for disappointment, but it's a thrilling start to the season for Boston's ace regardless, and at the least a sign of good things to come for the rest of the year.
Success with Lester isn't something we should be shocked by, though. He struggled for two-thirds of the 2012 season as mechanical problems and life without his peak fastball velocity made him less of a pitcher than he had been, but by year's end, he had begun the healing process on both of those fronts. Over his final 13 starts and 85 innings of 2012, Lester produced a 3.92 ERA while inducing more grounders than fly balls and striking out 2.2 times as many batters as he walked. It wasn't the Lester of old, but it was the start of something new.
With his former pitching coach John Farrell back in town as the Red Sox manager and an experienced catcher like David Ross around to help guide him through individual games, Lester was essentially born anew during the 2013 campaign. He publicly admitted he didn't have the high-velocity attack that he used to, and that he had been trying to learn to live with the diminished stuff that comes with pitching into your late-20s and 30s by changing his game plan. Some pitchers never recover from this, and they fail to recapture any of the glory of their youth, either settling in as useful fractions of their former selves, or finding themselves pushed out of the league quickly due to an inability to adjust to their new reality. Luckily for Lester and the Red Sox, the lefty seemed to have a handle on the situation.
Lester began the year strong, producing a 3.60 ERA over 85 innings and 13 starts while striking out 7.3 per nine: it wasn't like his early Boston years, where he routinely punched out a batter per inning or more, but he was keeping walks to a minimum and clearly had a plan for hitters other than "throw harder." Lester's focus was on hitting his spots and keeping hitters off-balance in order to induce contact beneficial to the Red Sox. His velocity was also more consistent even if it wasn't as lofty, according to the lefty himself, as he better-paced himself throughout the game so he had something left late. It's the difference between pitching and throwing, between raw talent and preparation, and in his age-29 season, it's what Lester needed in order to avoid another ordeal like 2012.
Shades of the previous year's struggles appeared ever-so-briefly in June, though, as his mechanics slipped and he allowed 17 runs over three starts, ballooning his ERA to 4.57. Unlike the previous summer, though, under a coaching staff that no longer existed by this time, Lester's problem was quickly identified and corrected, and he didn't slip like that again for the rest of the year -- and still hasn't. In the 176 innings since, including the postseason, Lester has a 2.60 ERA and 3.5 times as many walks as strikeouts while averaging nearly seven innings per start.
The 2012 season was a hiccup, but it was also a crossroads of sorts: Would Lester adjust to the changes in his stuff and velocity, or would the league finally overtake one of the game's more successful arms? More than a season removed from that moment, with Lester's obviously changed game plan there for all to see, we can safely say he answered the challenge. The second half of his career might not mirror the first, but he's establishing himself as one of the pitchers who adjusts and continues to thrive, rather than one who begins to slip and never reaches their earlier heights again.
At the end of the season (if not sooner) the Red Sox will have to make a decision about whether they want that portion of Lester's career to remain in Boston. The reported $70-80 million offer they made to Lester prior to Opening Day makes it seem as if their current answer has more to do with being polite to a current player than it does with actively trying to retain him, but there is still time to fix it. Lester could realistically get more expensive with time as he continues to prove that the old Lester is gone, but that the new version is just as effective: In a farm system with loads of pitching prospects but very likely no Lester 2.0, the real thing makes a lot of sense to retain.