Jon Lester Needs To Return To Form For The Red Sox To Contend

The Red Sox organization has been in a free fall since last September 1st.  Mirroring the Red Sox’ fall from grace has been the decline of the guy that used to be looked at as our young ace pitcher, Jon Lester.  Lester is only 28 years old this year but if he can not rebound from his sub-par pitching since last September than sadly we may have already seen the best days of Jon Lester as a pitcher.

Lester has been an inconsistent performer since last September 1

Lester’s woes have flown under the radar with Josh Beckett being public enemy #1 for what he’s done off the field, Clay Buchholz pitching as bad as any starter in the league at the outset of the season, and John Lackey in exile (even though he’s in the dugout at every home game) after Tommy John surgery.  Lester also got points from Red Sox Nation when he stepped up and accepted responsibility for what happened last season in the clubhouse and expressed remorse for what became of the Red Sox season and manager Terry Francona.  Lester, however, has been as inconsistent as any player on the Red Sox since last September 1st when the wheels began to come off of the wagon.

Consider that Lester made 25 starts between opening day and August 27th.  Of those 25 starts 19 of them were quality starts (pitching at least 6 innings while giving up only 4 runs or less).  A quality start is a benchmark for consistency for  a major league pitcher and a 76% Quality Start rate, which Lester had going into September last year, is an excellent number.  Lester also struck out at least 5 batters in 20 of his 25 starts including 11 in a game against the Angels on May 3rd of last year.  He had a 3.09 ERA heading into September last season and had walked 3.3 guys per 9 innings.  His shortest outing of the season was a 4 inning outing against Toronto on July 5th due to an injury that caused him to leave early in his next start as well and eventually land on the disabled list.  There were only three other occasions where Lester could not get into the 7th inning meaning he reached the 7th in 80% of his starts through August.  Then came September 1st.

Lester made 6 starts in September.  He had 3 quality starts, a 50% QS rate.  He went 5 innings, 4 innings, and 2 1/3 respectively in his other 3 outings.  His ERA in the month of September was 5.48, he walked 4.6 guys per 9 innings, and he sported a 1-3 record.  Things have not gotten better for Lester so far this season.  In 7 outings to start the year he has 4 quality starts.  He’s got a 4.29 ERA and he’s had more than 5 strikeouts in only 2 of his 7 starts.  He had given up 18 walks so far on the season.  He’s got a 1-3 record thus far.

When you put together Lester’s numbers from September 1 of last year the results are disappointing.  His 7 quality starts in 13 outings leaves him with an average 54% QS%.  He has a 4.76 ERA and a 4.2 BB/9 rate.  His record is 2-6.  Compare that with his 3.09 ERA and 3.3 BB/9 rate through August of last year and you find a serious downgrade in production.  Compared even further to his career stats going into last season when he had a 3.55 career ERA, 3.4 BB/9 rate and averaged about 16 wins per season you would assume that Lester is a much more effective pitcher than he’s been showing.

Lester’s been easily flustered by umpire calls but he needs to bare down in those situations

So the million dollar question is – what is the problem?  It doesn’t seem to be health related.  I do see Lester get flustered early in games over close calls that go the other way and he tends to lose his composure.  But why now at this point in his career?  Why does he seem to be regressing rather than maturing as a pitcher at age 28?  I doubt anyone knows the answer and I am hoping that what seems like a statistical anomaly is exactly that, a blip on the radar for a guy that has a ton of talent and will put it all behind him.  Lester hasn’t totally lost his arm, he’s just inconsistent.  You’ll see flashes of the Lester we thought we’d see every night and then the guy who throws too many pitches will come back 5 days later.  Lester is coming off of a string of sub-par outings and tonight would be the perfect time for him to throw another gem and give the Red Sox their 4th consecutive quality start, something they’ve only done one other time this season (series in Chicago).

Despite all the talk about beer, chicken, and golf it all comes down to starting pitching.  The Red Sox are 15-19 largely because their starting pitching has been inconsistent and hasn’t gotten deep into outings.  The bullpen has settled down but is still being used far too much because the starters aren’t going deep into games.  Jon Lester, not Josh Beckett, should be the ace of this staff.  He is 3 years younger than him and in the prime of his career.  If Lester doesn’t bear down and become the pitcher that he should be it will be hard to see us anywhere near the race this September 1st.  Hopefully tonight we will start to see that guy.

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A perspective on “HohlerGate”

I, like many others in the Boston area, read the article by Bob Hohler in the Boston Globe this morning about the September collapse.  And like many I have a very strong opinion on it.  I’ll get to Hohler, whether this was another dastardly “leak” from the front office, and what I had a problem with in this article but let me be clear on some basic facts first.

  • I accept that there was some semblance of truth in this article.  Obviously we know that there were issues going on in the clubhouse.  I understand that there were definitely bad things going on with the troika of Beckett, Lackey, and Lester in the clubhouse.  There was just a bit more detail about that thrown into this article.
  • I understand that Terry Francona wasn’t the same Terry Francona that has managed the Red Sox for the past 7 years prior.  Reputable sources close to Francona such as Jerry Remy have confirmed as such.  Obviously a combination of personal and professional issues could have led to Tito wanting a clean break but I am speculating here as much as the next guy.  More on that later.
  • I realize that there are other problems in the clubhouse besides the pitchers.  Youk’s been reported to be an unpopular guy in the clubhouse for years now and things are probably worse when he is unable to produce.  I can buy Jacoby Ellsbury having a chip on his shoulder after what he went through last year, maybe he was detached.

As I said, I feel that all parts of the article pertaining to the above issues are probably true (save for some of the stuff on Francona which I will get to in a minute) but that doesn’t mean you can point to the article and say “Well, this stuff is true so why wouldn’t the rest be?” which I have heard many times today.  One of my favorites is “When there is smoke there is fire.”  While that is true but when there is smoke there is also more smoke.  Here is what I didn’t like about the article before I get to the author(s) and who may or may not have played a part in the article.

  • Let’s start with Adrian Gonzalez.  This guy was the consummate professional and workhorse all year, as he’s been for his entire career.  The only thing worth criticizing all season were his comments after the end of the season about the schedule.  Somehow the author(s) somehow tie those comments into a lack of leadership?  It left a bad taste in my mouth, especially when they attributed that comment to “September” rather than after the season had ended to create the illusion that there was an ongoing issue yet offering no further evidence that there actually was.
  • This one might go half here and half up top but I’m going to defend Papi a bit.  Sure he probably developed a chip on his shoulder due to his contract situation and perhaps other goings on in the clubhouse but there is no doubt that he played his ass off in September and actually wanted to win.  The author(s) quickly gloss over the fact that he tried to rally the team in September by citing two public “embarrassments” of Terry Francona.  While the press room incident was uncalled for, I can hardly criticize Ortiz for saying what everyone was thinking…why was Kyle Weiland starting while Alfredo Aceves stayed in the bullpen?  Again the author(s) just cite public incidents in an article strife with insider information to criticize a player.
  • Perhaps my favorite part, the short throw away line before detailing an exchange with Dustin Pedroia – “In the end, only Pedroia and a few other players appeared to remain fully committed to winning, according to team sources.”  While this author(s) shamelessly names the culprits of the many transgressions that he uncovered he conveniently decides that he doesn’t want to name names when it is time to talk about the guys who did play hard.  It’s not hard to wonder why.  Maybe they were players that made a lot of money.  Maybe they were players who didn’t play well despite said effort.  Either way it would apparently be counter-productive to the author(s) agenda to name said players in a positive light.
  • One of the more curious things in the article is whose names were missing from it.  Two of the biggest on-field culprits of September, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, went unmentioned in the article.  Why was that?  Were they two of the guys who worked hard to meager results?  Were they clubhouse problems and if so why weren’t they mentioned?  It’s odd to me that a piece on the Red Sox September collapse, even if it mostly focused on off-field stuff, didn’t mention to of its feature players.  By my account the only other four regulars not mentioned specifically by name in this article were Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Marco Scutaro, and the right field combination of J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick.
  • Now let’s talk about Tito.  Seriously, a pill addiction?  The author(s) weren’t totally out of line to mention it if it had in fact been brought up by a source but it seems like the wrong forum to tie this in to an article on the September collapse like it somehow had something to do with it when the article cites an incident in spring training that was vetted.  Why not write a wholly separate article on Tito instead of going all-out hatchet job in the middle of a bigger article.  Also this was not specifically mentioned, only implied, but when is the Boston sports media going to get sick of the now tired “Personal problems?  Marital problems?  He must be banging Heidi Watney” cliche.  I don’t understand how that girl sticks around here.

So now the obvious question is “Why was this article written now and what was the agenda behind it.”  Clearly there was an agenda behind it, you can see it clear as day in the writing.  Who is behind it?  I guess that’s the million dollar question.  As much as the tiring know-it-all Boston sports fans will want to exonerate the writer(s) but the fact still remains that this may not be the most accurate picture of everything that went on.  Mike Giardi of Comcast Sports New England’s shorter article of the same subject ( paints Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford (who actually wasn’t mentioned in the Globe article until his free agent signing was used as an example for discourse between Theo and the front office) in a much different light.  Of course my suspicions are that Crawford was one of the guys who played hard all the way but why give one of the resident whipping boys any credit, especially if a number of the other whipping boys may be headed out the door?  Also Dustin Pedroia chimed in with a player’s perspective of some of the issues addressed in the article ( that doesn’t seem that far-fetched.  But beware to those (looking at you Curt Schilling and others) who put this hatchet job on the shoulders of “Red Sox Ownership”  First off, Red Sox Ownership, to me, implies three guys – John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino.  It stands to reason from past experience that at most only one of these guys would be involved in such an elaborate attempt at character assassination.  Could it be Shank Shank 2.0?  Perhaps but the fact of the matter is this – for the better part of the past 10 years the pouty, arrogant sports personalities in this city have moped around like spoiled jealous school children who didn’t get their way while the fans idolized a city filled with champions.  The sports personalities in this town are obsessed with being as big as the story or as the player or as the team.  September was like Christmas morning for a whole month plus an entire off-season.  So slander they must because they wouldn’t have it any other way.  And they had better enjoy it while they can because the last time two times this happened, the Red Sox were World Champions within two years.