Red Sox Player Preview: Jon Lester

Lester will look to wipe the stink off of last September this season

2011 was Jon Lester’s first year of being the unofficial ace of the Red Sox staff.  He made his first opening day start and, with the exception of his opening day start in Texas, had the best start to a season in his career.  However by the end of the 2011 season he was being talked about more for what he did off of the field than what he did on it.  It was a change for Lester who had been a Boston hero since his triumphant return from cancer treatment following the 2006 season.

Lester comes into 2012 with something to prove.  He wants to prove that he is the same guy that Red Sox Nation fell in love with 5 years ago.  He wants to prove that he can be a leader for this rotation and team.  He wants to prove that he can be a good teammate.  He wants to prove that the things that happened in 2011 are in the past.  To do that he needs to stay healthy and his arm should do the rest.

Here’s a look at his 2011 stats (with career highs in parentheses)

Games Started: 31 (33, 2008)
Innings Pitched: 191.2 (210.1, 2008)
Win-Loss Record: 15-9 (19-9, 2010)
ERA: 3.47 (3.21, 2008)
WHIP: 1.257 (1.202, 2010)
Batting Average Against: .234 (.220, 2010)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 8.5 (10.0, 2009)
Walks/9 Innings: 3.5 (2.8, 2008, 2009)

2012 Outlook:

As I said, Jon Lester has a lot to prove this season and he started by showing up to spring training over a week early and leading voluntary player workouts with the group that had arrived in Fort Myers ahead of schedule.  Lester sat down with the media on the first official day of camp and took responsibility for what happened in the clubhouse last season and pledged to be a better teammate (The Globe’s Peter Abraham has an excellent write-up on his Q&A here).  Lester has said and done all of the right things since he arrived at Fort Myers a few weeks ago.  Still it comes down to action and Lester will need to show it on the mound as well.

Lester has been an early and eager participant at Sox camp this year

One thing that you might forget about Jon Lester in the wake of last year’s collapse is that he’s been a consistently good pitcher over his career so far.  Last year his .625 winning percentage was the worst of his 6-year career.  That means his 15-9 record from last season was his least productive.  Lester spent time on the D.L. last July and did not pitch well in September but his numbers generally stayed consistent with his career averages when he was healthy.  Lester was an All-Star for the second time in as many years last year and has become one of the premiere left-handed pitchers in the American League along with the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia.  Lester just needs to come in, stay focused, and keep healthy and he should be able to anchor the Sox rotation again this year.

One thing going for Lester this year to look out for is the “Age 28 factor”.  Lester, along with rotation mate Clay Buchholz, will be entering the year at the age of 28, an age that many of the elite pitchers enjoy their most successful seasons (I crunched the year 28 numbers in this blog I did about Buchholz last month).  Former Sox aces Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, and even current rotation mate Josh Beckett all had their best statistical seasons at age 28.  If Lester replicates their successes at this age might he reach the now elusive 20-win plateau?

There will also be a new approach this year as an organization in regards to the pitching staff.  Bobby Valentine is now the Red Sox manager and Bob McClure is his new pitching coach.  McClure will be Lester’s 3rd different pitching coach in as many seasons.  The Sox staff seemed to respond to John Farrell when he was pitching coach but Curt Young seemed to have trouble connecting with the Sox’ staff last season.  McClure started to take steps to make sure he didn’t have the same problems almost immediately after being hired by Valentine and the Sox (WEEI’s Alex Speier went over McClure’s off-season preparation in this blog).  McClure has been in touch with all the Sox starters’, including Lester, since December and has worked to create a rapport with the pitchers as early in the process as possible.  That should help Lester and co. feel comfortable with McClure and more importantly buy into the process that he is preaching as pitching coach.

Lester and Saltalamacchia enter their second season as battery mates

He also will be entering his second season with battery-mate Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  Salty caught Lester in most of his starts last year and figures to be his primary catcher again this season.  Saltalamacchia comes into camp with a full year of catching Lester under his belt as well as a full year of tutelage from catcher Jason Varitek, who had become very familiar with Lester over the years.  There should be some added chemistry in Lester and Salty’s pitcher/catcher relationship.

The key to Lester this year will be health.  He has many things going for him that says he will have a big year if he stays healthy.  He has the motivation to wipe the stink off of the 2011 Red Sox, the age where many pitchers enjoy the greatest success, and a new manager and pitching coach to mesh with.  Lester had been pretty durable in 2009 and 2010 so I’m hoping that the health problems of last season were a one-time thing.  It seems to me that if Lester stays healthy he will pitch like an ace and be in contention for a Cy Young at the end of the year.

Lester surely hopes to be opening a series in October but that will depend a lot on what his rotation mates do through the course of the season.  Theoretically Lester should be the last guy in the Sox’ rotation that you need to worry about heading into the season.  And I think that will ultimately be the case.  Expect a big year from Jon Lester.  Check back tomorrow for my player preview of starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

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About evonsports
30 year old sports enthusiast and aspiring writer from Boston.

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