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40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profiles: Jon Lester

40 in 40:BostonRed Sox Player Profiles: Jon Lester

Jon Lester will be the Boston Red Sox Opening Day starter again this year. Josh Beckett, who will start the home opener, deferred to the younger lefty, told manager Bobby Valentine that Lester “earned the job last year and didn’t do anything to lose it.” Lester originally earned the honor with his incredible 2009 and 2010 seasons, where he was among the 10 most valuable pitchers in the game each year, by fWAR.

Last season was something of a down year for the ace of the Red Sox staff. Lester was still very effective, but his 3.83 FIP was his worst since his rookie season and his 3.47 ERA was nearly a quarter of a run up from his 2010 mark. The major culprit was a downturn in his strikeout rate. Lester dropped from a rate of 9.74 K/9 in 2010 to 8.55 in 2011. While that is still an excellent strike out rate, the downturn did not help the hard throwing lefty any.

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Lester is among the harder throwing left-handed starters in the game, with an average of 92.7 mph on his four-seamer. He features a cutter which average 88.9 mph and two  off-speed pitches, a change up and a curve ball.

His fastball has a sinking action and in the past two years, updates to the PitchF/X system’s classifications have actually separated that pitch into two pitches, a four-seamer and a sinker, though Lester himself may not distinguish between the two. He throws this pitch close to 50% of the time and it is the primary reason for his fantastic ground ball rates. Lester is one of a handful of pitchers who can generate groundballs close to 50% of the time and yet still strike out more than seven batters per nine. This select group includes some the best pitchers in the game, like Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia and Felix Hernandez. He can throw this pitch at point in the count to any hitter and the likely result will be a ball hit on the ground.

In contrast, Lester uses his cutter to generate whiffs. Since 2009, hitters have swung and missed at the pitch 15.1% of the time. It breaks away from lefty hitters and has slightly more downward movement than the four-seamer. He uses this pitch much like he uses his off-speed offerings, throwing it 13-14% of the time. He tends to throw this pitch to the left side of the plate from the catcher’s perceptive, or away from a LHH most of the time, regardless of which side the batter hits from. The pitch therefore tends to be used to jam righties inside and break away from lefties on the outside of the plate. He does use the pitch more against righties, but he is not afraid to throw it at anytime.

Lester features both a curve ball and a change, both which are excellent pitches. He throws his 84 mph change up almost exclusively against right handed hitters, while he uses the curve fairly equally. As is typical of a lefty using a change up against righties, Lester throws the change away all every time, keeping it low in the zone as well. His curve is a fantastic out pitch, with a 12.5% whiff rate and a low rate of being put in play (13.1%). It has a large horizontal movement and significant drop. Lester throws it low in the zone and most often to the catcher’s left hand side, putting it away from lefties and in on righties. At just 76.5 mph, his curve has killer movement and a massive speed differential from his fastball.

While Lester was not the top tier pitcher last season that he had been in 2009 and 2010, he was still extremely effective and his ERA was still elite, at19% better than league average. There is some reason to be concerned, giving the falling strike outs rate, but Lester is a complete pitcher, capable of succeeding with ground balls as well as punch outs. What ever caused the drop in strike outs, there is no sign that it is a continuing issue for him. In 2012, Lester should once again be the top pitcher in theBostonrotation and among the game’s best overall.