Last Friday, I once again had to deal with the obnoxious case of having two pitchers on my fantasy team going against one another in a real game. The Barry Zito-Marco Estrada duel that I complained about last week turned into an unmitigated disaster. This time, I had Jon Lester going up against Alex Cobb. It didn't turn out too great, either. Cobb went five innings, struggled with his control, and needed 96 pitches to slog through five innings to get the win. Lester, meanwhile, got tattooed, surrendering seven runs and three home runs in four innings of work. It wasn't exactly the scoreless pitcher's duel I dream of whenever I have pitchers going in the same game. This one was forgettable only until Franklin Morales decided to start aiming at the rib cages of the Tampa players.
This continues a disturbing trend of extremely spotty pitching by Lester, who since 2008 has consistently been one of the Top hurlers in the American League. Lester's rocky outing Friday resulted in a skyrocketing ERA; it rose to 4.72. This was especially disappointing since it appeared as though Lester had begun to turn his season around with a shutout of the Mariners on May 14. Lester's continued struggles are starting to make some wonder if all of the innings aren't finally catching up to his left arm.
Normally when a pitcher of Lester's caliber is mired in an early slump, the first thing a savvy manager will do is explore buying him for a low price. Is that the case here? After, the jump, a look at whether Lester's problems are easily remedied, or if there's something else going on that should keep you far, far away.
This isn't the first extended rough patch that Lester has encountered in his career. Far from it. Ironically, I nabbed him in a keeper league a few years back when he was stuck in the middle of just such a bad streak. Back in 2009, when he was coming off of a stellar first full season in the bigs, his first two months were completely miserable. When the sun set on May of that year, Lester's ERA at the time stood at a gruesome 5.65. The guy who won the title-clinching Game Four of the World Series in 2007 and then won 16 games in 2008 was nowhere to be found.
As his ERA hovered in the stratosphere that season, I was lucky enough to find an owner who got fed up and was willing to let him go for below market rates. Pretty much the second he landed on my team, he became the All-Star whiff artist we've come to know so well. You see, despite Lester's high ERA, his strikeout rate had risen dramatically, and that's what had caught my eye. In 2008, he had whiffed 6.5 batters per nine innings. In 2009, he'd end up striking out 10.0 per nine innings, and that dominant rate held up pretty much from start to finish. Sure enough, it wasn't long before Lester's luck evened out and his ERA plunged.
Sadly, there's no high strikeout rate to act as a silver lining this time. I'm sure I sound like a broken record on here, but when a pitcher struggles, the first thing I look at is how many bat he's missing. In Lester's case, a lot less than normal. This season he's only whiffing six batters per nine, a continuation of a disturbing trend that began last season. When you see a drop in strikeouts, you immediately worry about a loss of stuff, but Lester's pitch velocity is relatively unchanged from last season. He isn't giving up more home runs and he isn't walking more batters. So what's wrong here?
First off, his ERA is tainted by two awful starts: one against Texas, where he gave up seven runs in two innings, and the aforementioned start against Tampa Bay. In the start against the Rays, he was uncharacteristically prone to the long ball. While his declining strikeout rate is disconcerting, all of his other peripheral numbers have held steady. It's not like there are little red flags everywhere, like there are with Tim Lincecum.
If the Sox can ever get Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury back, it should help Lester significantly, but who knows when those guys will be back. Lester hasn't pitched a grotesque amount of innings over the past few years, so it's hard to argue that he might be fatigued from overwork. More likely, he'll heat up with the weather and see his strikeout rate tick up. Perhaps not into the double digits, but enough make him a safe play throughout the rest of the season.