From 2008-11 Jon Lester of the Red Sox was one of the best lefties in baseball. Not only that, he was actually one of the better pitchers regardless of the arm he used to chuck pitches toward the plate. During that four year run Lester won at least 15 games each season with an ERA under 3.50 with a WHIP in the 1.20's each year. He also struck out at least 180 batters over the final three seasons. In fact, he was an elite arm if you compare him to all other hurlers in baseball over those four seasons.
His 65 wins were tied with Cliff Lee for 4th in baseball. His 3.33 ERA was 13th in baseball (min. 600 IP). His 8.68 K/9 mark was 8th in baseball. His total of 784 Ks was 8th in baseball. His total of 813.1 innings was 18th in baseball.
Give that track record of success, and the fact that he was just 28 years old last season, what can explain his disastrous '12 campaign that was by far the worst of his career? We'll investigate.
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Lester bombed last season, worse than anyone could have imagined. His record reversed itself, he went 9-14, his ERA exploded to a career worst 4.82, his WHIP shot up to 1.38 and his K mark fell to 166 (a four year low). One of the few positives was that he continued to take the ball every five games as he made 33 starts covering 205.1 innings. So why the downturn in production from a guy who appeared to be lined up to have a lot of success in 2012?
Lester has been an impressive strikeout arm with 225 Ks in back-to-back seasons in 2009-10. That number dipped a bit in 2011 as his 9.80 K/9 mark from 2009-10 fell to 8.55. That number further regressed last year falling to 7.28. Did he suffer a velocity dip? Nope. His fastball was 92.6 mph last year, a tenth above his career number. In fact, his cutter was thrown harder than ever before at 90.3 mph. He also deployed the pitches in the same manner.
Fastball 52 percent of the time (career 54 percent). Cutter 22 percent of the time (career 21 percent).
A velocity loss doesn't explain things.
When he threw the ball in the strike zone batters made more contact that ever before, 91 percent of the swings, though his career mark is 89 percent so it's not a huge difference. There was also a four year high in the contact rate of batters swinging at all pitches inside/outside the strike zone at 80.4 percent, but again that only two percent above his career mark (79.3). There's also this – Lester walked 2.98 batters per nine innings, a three year low after back-to-back seasons of a mark in the 3.50's. He lost some K's but also cut the walks with the result being a 2.44 K/BB ratio, right on his 2.47 career mark despite the significant decline in punchouts. Given all that data, I wouldn't be shocked in the least if his K/9 rate went back up to his career level of 8.20 as I just can't pinpoint why the mark fell off so dramatically last year.
A few things that should normalize as well and lead to improvement.
His 22.0 percent line drive rate was a career worst (career 19.1 percent).
His .312 BABIP was a three year high and the second highest mark of the last six years.
His HR/F ratio was 13.9 percent, a career worst and well above his 10.1 percent career mark. The result was a HR/9 mark of 1.10, a five year high and well above that 0.85 career mark.
He had a 6.31 ERA and 1.59 WHIP at Fenway last season. For his career those marks are 3.89 and 1.36.
Lester is no longer someone you can look at with a shot to be a top-15 starting pitcher. That said, his current ADP numbers in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship barely have him listed as an SP3. Given the cost, I think Lester is going to be well worth investing in this season
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By Ray Flowers
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The co-host of The Drive on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (Sirius 210, XM 87: Mon-Thurs 7 PM, Fri. 9 PM EDT), Ray also hosts a show Sunday night (7-10 PM EDT). Ray has spent years squirreled away studying the inner workings of the fantasy game to the detriment of his personal life. Specializing in baseball, football and hockey, some consider him an expert in all three.
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