With the departure of Josh Beckett in that eight-player blockbuster trade between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers last August, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are the only pitchers remaining from Boston’s 2007 World Championship team. It’s no coincidence that the two of them are the key for the Red Sox to get back to the postseason in 2013.
After a stellar 2010 (17-7, 2.33 ERA), Buchholz has suffered two injury-plagued seasons of inconsistency. The Red Sox are confident that Buchholz straightened things out towards the end of 2012 and believe that he will be more than ready to fill the number two spot in the pitching rotation. For the first time in his Red Sox tenure, Lester will be the true number one.
Though Lester has been considered by many to be the ace of the staff over the last two seasons, Beckett’s presence on the team has always cast doubt on that designation. Now, Beckett’s gone and the Red Sox will depend heavily on Lester to return to his 2010 form. Believe it or not, even after a disastrous 2012 season, the possibility of this happening isn’t all that far fetched.
Lester went into 2012 with a career .691 winning percentage, which was good for third best in MLB history. But a season full of turmoil has knocked that statistic all the way down to 38th on the list. With a 9-14 record last year, Lester posted the first losing season of his career. His ERA ballooned to 4.82, almost one and a half runs worse than in the previous season. But in a year filled with distractions and utter chaos at times, there were some bright spots in Lester’s numbers.
Lester was dominant in 2010 with a 19-9 record, an ERA of 3.25, and 225 strikeouts in 208 innings. During that gem of a season, he recorded 22 starts in which he gave up three earned runs or less. He duplicated that number in 2011. During last year’s debacle, Lester still provided the Red Sox with 20 such starts. So the “good” was still there. It’s just that the “bad” was much worse than it had been in the past.
Where it really went south for Lester last season was during a four-start stretch in July. It was during this span—a period that included a game in which manager Bobby Valentine left him in to give up 11 runs—that Lester’s ERA rose from 4.33 to 5.39 and never really recovered.
Down the stretch, Lester’s numbers were decent, but the Red Sox, having lost David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks to injury and Adrian Gonzalez in that mega-trade, gave very little in the way of run support. Lester’s ERA during his final 12 starts was 3.76. He gave up three runs or less in nine of those outings, averaging just under seven innings per start, but the team managed just four wins in those games.
At 29 years old, Lester still has plenty left in the tank. His late season surge last year, though it didn’t result in many wins, was still a very good sign. If the Red Sox hope to contend in 2013, they’ll need a strong showing from their entire pitching staff, but if Jon Lester can’t return to his dominant 2010 form, they simply aren’t going anywhere. The good news is that he’s given the Red Sox every reason to believe that he can.
(JM Catellier is the author of the book Fixing Baseball, a guide to restructuring the Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter: @FixingBaseball and Facebook, and check out his site: www.fixingbaseball.com)