Dateline: April 9, 2010. Carson Cistulli leads Dave Cameron and me in a discussion of pre-season predictions. Dave goes out on a limb and predicts James Shields to win the AL Cy Young and Josh Hamilton to win the AL MVP. I have a hearty laugh, compose myself, and offer safer, saner alternatives. Miguel Cabrera for MVP, Jon Lester for Cy Young. Apparently the latter prediction became the equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Lester, who had already struggled through five innings in his season debut against the Yankees, faced equal, if not worse, troubles in his next two starts against the Twins and the Rays. His line after three starts:
16 IP, 21 H, 15 R, 15 ER, 9 BB, 15 K, 2 HR
After the third start, against the Rays, clearly Lester’s worst of the season, I had to smack myself upside the head. Lester had been an attractive pre-season pick for Cy Young. He actually underperformed his peripherals last season, posting a 3.41 ERA against a 3.15 FIP and 3.13 xFIP. His career-high .323 BABIP was sure to decline. If he could replicate his walk and strikeout rates, 9.96 per nine and 2.83 per nine, he’d be on his way to one stellar season. In fact, if his luck completely turned on BABIP and it dipped below his career norm in 2010, he might have ended the Cy Young discussion before it even started.
Then came those three games. The strikeouts were still there, which was about the only positive for Lester during that period. His walk rate resembled that of his minor league career. Opponents were hitting .313/.405/.478 against him, hitting the ball on a line 24 percent of the time. His BABIP, the one point on which I thought his season could turn, sat at an ugly .352. It was just three starts, hardly something on which we can judge a season. But they were three ugly starts.
There was still plenty of hope for young Lester. Last season he started off even worse, allowing 34 runs in his first 47 IP. That situation was even worse. He had allowed 10 home runs in those 47 innings, and his BABIP sat at an ugly .391. But then from May 21 through the end of the season he allowed just 43 runs in 156.1 innings, including just 10 home runs with a .298 BABIP. His June through September performance might have gotten him into the Cy discussion, but the voters tend to count those April and May starts, too.
This year Lester’s turnaround occurred after just three starts, so he has more than enough time to bring his season numbers into line with his true talent. In fact, with his performance last night he might have done just that. It took him 111 pitches to get through six innings, but when you strike out nine and walk five your pitch count tends to rise quickly. Regardless, he allowed just one hit and no runs, bringing his season ERA down to 3.15. That is right in line with his FIP, 3.17, and xFIP, 3.25. The slight bump in xFIP is due to his 9.5 percent HR/FB ratio, but that seems also relate to his increased ground ball percentage, 54.6, compared to his career average of 45.8.
What makes me even more optimistic about Lester’s chances to put together a league-best season is how he described his effort last night.
“I had a hard time getting into a rhythm,” he told reporters after the game. “It was just kind of a battle from the beginning. I was just not in a rhythm, not in a flow of the game, just kind of had a think feeling.” (from MLB.com)
I’m not quite sure what Lester considers a “thick feeling,” but if it results in one hit and nine strikeouts I’m sure he’ll take it on most nights. In any case, on a night where he clearly wasn’t feeling his best he managed to completely shut down the team that has scored the second most runs per game in the AL. Just imagine, then, what the game will look like over the summer, when Lester has his A game and is facing the Royals lineup. Fun times should lie ahead for the Red Sox and their ace.
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