Lester’s Attack on Cy Young Summit Gets Bogged Down

Jon Lester emerged from April this season in great shape to summit this year’s American League Cy Young Podium. A notoriously slow starter, Lester turned the tables on April this year, finishing the first month of the season with five consecutive quality starts and an ERA just a tick over two and half.

Given his quick start and his history of dominating months two through four, it didn’t take much imagination to see Lester heading for a monster season. Maybe not a “2000 Pedro” but possibly a vintage that tastes like a “1991 Clemens” or a “2004 Schilling.” You know …. something like 21 wins, an ERA around 2.50, a WHIP under 1.1 and 225 Ks. If the Sox won the division, a season like that could win Lester the Cy Young.

But Lester’s push to the summit took an ugly turn in May. Or more specifically, since he stuffed the Angels on May 3 with a jewel of a game. Here are the facts. Since that Angels game, Lester has started five games and been cracked in four of them. To summarize, here are the four words I would use to describe each galling start: abysmal, awkward, lifeless, and miserable. The fifth start was a game Lester entered with a seven-run lead so that doesn’t deserve mention and it certainly doesn’t carry much weight as we evaluate Lester’s body of work in May.

The damage caused to Lester’s numbers has been pretty serious. No longer a league leader, Lester is now stuck with an ERA of 3.97 which is 1.6 runs above his May 3 lows and leaves him with an ERA+ of just 103. For reference, an ERA+ of 100 is considered “league average.” So Lester is toiling in some pretty ordinary company.

So what is the cause of the breakdown? And more importantly, is this now becoming a “worry?”

As far as I can tell, Lester’s problems can be traced to shaky command, particularly early in the count. He is simply not getting ahead of hitters and when he is throwing 2-0 and 3-1 fastballs, they are getting smacked. This is the same ailment that most ordinary pitchers struggle with and Lester, even with his excellent ganga (stuff), is proving vulnerable to the illness.

Given Lester’s strong resume, it would surprise me if he can’t turn this thing around. And the optimist could argue that with two months in the bag, Lester is still way ahead of where he was in 2009 and not dangerously short of where he was a year ago.

But last year, he was flying at this point. And that is not the case right now. So truthfully, I am a bit worried.

Sure, this might just be a soft patch and history has shown that this pitcher is susceptible to month-long downturns. But this thing has now been going on for a full month. And if it goes on much longer, it becomes anomalous with Lester’s history. At that point, it becomes more difficult to just assume things will self-correct. We are still a ways away from that point so there is no need to hit the panic switch.  But just to be safe, perhaps it is time to elevate this concern on the threat meter.  So I am moving Lester to defcon two.

It seems unwise to lose too much sleep over Lester right now and I am still confident he will carry his weight this season. But remember, he was penciled in to carry a heavy load this season and the Sox don’t exactly have a ton of guys who can step in and assist if Lester turns up “ordinary.” Beckett and Buchholz can take some of it, but with Lackey sputtering and Dice finished, the Sox need Lester to be a lot closer to the CYA podium than the definition of “league average.”

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