The news surrounding the Boston Red Sox has been nothing short of great recently. The bullpen appears stronger than it’s been in years. John Lackey is healthy and ready to pitch. Daniel Bard is back on track. Mike Napoli is experiencing no symptoms from that infamous hip injury. John Henry is adamant about not selling the team and putting a winner back on the field. Pitchers, catchers, and position players are showing up to camp early in droves. It’s been all good. Well, that is, until yesterday when pitcher Jon Lester dropped this little gem on the media.
“What next level is there? That’s the thing that frustrates me. People don’t consider me an ace or don’t consider me a front-line starter. Well, when there are two other pitchers in all of baseball who (won at least 15 games four straight seasons), what am I? That’s my argument to it. What extra level is there to it? Am I supposed to win 25 games every year? It’s not possible,” he said.
Well put, Jon (not really). Lester was obviously frustrated about being asked if he’s ready to jump to that next level of pitching. I am, too. That “next level”? I hate baseball cliches. What, specifically, is that next level? Someone enlighten me because I’m just not ready to condemn Lester here. In fact, I’m just as curious as he is.
What exactly is the job of a top starting pitcher anyway? No one seems to know—or everyone seems to know. That’s the problem. There’s nothing concrete and collectively agreed upon that answers this question. Is it to win games? Is it to not lose games? Is it to outpitch the opposing pitcher every fifth day? Is it to give your team a chance to win? Is it to produce quality starts? Is it all of these things or some combination of a few of them? I don’t know. No one seems to know.
Is Felix Hernandez a top pitcher? I’m sure the answer across baseball is heavily weighted towards “yes”. Of course he’s a great pitcher. Well, let’s look at his numbers. In his entire career, he’s only topped 14 wins once. In his eight years in MLB, he’s had just four winning seasons. He fails to outpitch his opponent on a regular basis. So how is it that “King Felix” is considered a top pitcher? C’mon, let’s hear it. The Seattle Mariners are terrible. They give him no run support. He’s constantly pitching in 2-1 games… blah, blah, blah. For some people that’s the simple, honest truth, but for others—like Lester, for example—those types of statements are considered excuses. Why the double standard?
Maybe it’s just that wins aren’t all that important after all. Heck, Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record. Why? He won it because he outpitched the league in nearly every other category. He led the A.L. in virtually every important statistic on the list. But, again, there’s no consistentcy.
Explain to me how Bob Welch won the Cy Young back in 1990. Sure, Welch was 27-6, but we just determined that wins aren’t what’s most important. Roger Clemens was 21-6 in that same season and he absolutely destroyed Welch in every other pitching category across the board. It wasn’t even close. Confused?
So what is it exactly that Jon Lester needs to do to get to that “next level”? Over the past five seasons, only four pitchers in baseball have more wins. Only five starting pitchers averaging 30 starts per season have fewer losses. Quality starts? Yeah, he has plenty of those, too. Over the past five seasons, Lester has produced 112 starts in which he gave up three or fewer runs. Among all A.L. pitchers, that number trails only Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and old friend Felix Hernandez.
Amazingly, Lester has only won 69 of those 112 starts. Is it okay to cite poor run support like we did with Hernandez? Another amazing number: Lester has only won five games since 2008 in which he gave up more than three runs. Five! In Verlander’s 2011 Cy Young year alone, he won four such games. Over in the N.L. Roy Halladay won three such starts in his Cy Young winning campaign of 2010.
As a member of the Red Sox, Lester’s done nothing but pitch well right up until the 2012 season. Last year was a disaster—a disaster in which he still produced 20 quality starts. To criticize Lester’s 2012 season is well within the rights of every Red Sox fan and writer out there because his ERA and strikeouts per nine dipped drastically. Criticism of his career, though, is simply unwarranted. Lester no doubt needs to get back to the level that he pitched at before that 2012 debacle, but asking for anything more than that seems to me to be a rather uneducated request.
Lester’s never won 20 games in a season and maybe that’s what he has to do to quiet the critics. He can accomplish this feat by simply pitching the way he pitched from 2008 to 2011. There’s no need to strive for some silly “next level” that has yet to be defined. The wording of his statement yesterday should have been fine-tuned for the rabid Lester-haters all over Boston, but I, for one, have no problem with the point he was trying to make.
(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)