Monday, April 19, 2010

The weight of expectation

Just a couple of years ago he was quite literally fighting for his life, battling one of the toughest diseases known to man and coming out a winner on the other end. Fast forward to the start of this baseball season, and Jon Lester, who is off to a rocky start, was being called in some corners, the 'real' ace of the Boston Red Sox.

Amazing how fast expectations can explode into unnatural territory.

If you frequent this site with any regularity you will know that we at Boston Irish are gigantic Lester fans. You do have to wonder though, is too much being expected of Lester this relatively early in his MLB career?

Lester has had two full seasons under his belt in the Majors. In 2008 he went 16-6 and last season he went 15-8. On the basis of his own strong, determined make up and his superb 'stuff' (the variety and standard of pitches available to him) several writers suggested Lester might be a nice little outside bet for the AL Cy Young award. Others suggested he might top 20 wins.

Instead, Lester has scuffed to a rough start, without a win as yet and giving up runs at a pace Hideki Irabu would be proud of. There are two ways to look at this, should we lower our expectations of Lester, or should Red Sox fans be worried that this is symptomatic of a loss of form?



In terms of expectations, Lester has shown some terrific upside the last two seasons of full volume of work. He has topped 200 innings both times, 210 in '08 and 204 in '09. There was a dramatic and exciting jump in strikeouts per inning between those two seasons, from a completely acceptable 6.5 to an otherworldly 9.96. That number is Pedro like. Lester was basically averaging 10 strikeouts a game in '09. In the American League, in fact in the American League East no less, facing the Yankees, Rays and other power packed lineups regularly.

So far in 2010 everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for Lester. He is walking over 5 batters a game, and when they do get on base, the guys behind them are knocking them in. Batters facing Lester are submitting a ridiculous .379 average on balls in play. What that means is basically nobody is catching anything Lester is giving up. While those stats are really horrible, they actually make for good reading.

'How so, crazy person?' You might ask. Easy. Lester will bring that walks total down, and the BABIP will even out also. Both those numbers are entirely artificial. The end product will be the runs will stop haemorrhaging, fast.

Lester is only 26 years old, a relative pup in terms of starting pitching. He has submitted an astonishingly good 42-16 record to start his Major League career. It's April 19th, we have barely touched any percentage of the MLB season. Lester is strong, physically fit and angry at himself for a poor start by his own already lofty standards.

Overall analysis of the situation? If you did place a wager on Lester to win the CY Young, don't throw the ticket out just yet. All the historical statistics and all the intangibles point to the young 'ace in waiting' righting the ship and blazing through lineups for the rest of the season. If you have any doubts, just watch him scythe his way 1-2-3 through the Rays in the first inning on Sunday. Three up, three strikeouts. The 'stuff' is there.

A couple of small adjustments and Lester, like the Red Sox, will be just fine.


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Irish National baseball team
Team Ireland at the European Championships, Croatia, 2000.

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