Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester throws a pitch against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park. Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE
Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have both been disappointing in 2012, and the Red Sox need them back to normal in order to succeed.
Wins and losses aren't everything for a pitcher, but, with the right context, there's plenty you can glean from them. For instance, Jon Lester is 5-9, and the Red Sox are 8-14 in games he's started. Teammate Josh Beckett is 5-9, with Boston 7-11 in his starts. Combined, the team's No. 1 and 2 starters have led the Red Sox to a 15-25 record.
Much of this is on them, too, as Lester owns a 5.36 ERA thanks to opponents beating on him to the tune of .283/.336/.473 this season. Boston hasn't been as effective scoring runs behind Lester as they are in general, but they still put up an average of 4.2 runs per game for the lefty -- going by ERA, since 2008, that would have been more than enough. Beckett has been better than Lester, with a 4.54 ERA and .259/.311/.392 opponent showing, but Boston is scoring just 4.1 runs per game for him. Again, though, were Beckett doing what he's shown himself capable of in the past, 4.1 runs per outing should be doing the trick, even if it's disappointing from a team averaging 4.9 per game overall.
Pitchers are allowed to struggle at times, and it's clear the lineup isn't doing what they're able to in the starts of these two hurlers, either, but both parties are running out of season to rectify their issues. Beckett is at least close to average, with a 97 ERA+, but Lester is well off the mark at 82. Were he average in his down year rather than terrible, Boston might be closer to .500 in the starts of their two supposed star pitchers, and it would be an entirely different season for a team that's currently just four games out of a wild card spot.
Four games isn't insurmountable, a fact that Red Sox fans should be acutely aware of given last September's proceedings. There's time left for both Beckett and Lester to correct their course, and now that the lineup is nearly whole with the return of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, only one of them doing so might even be necessary to accomplish their goals. Can they pitch like they're supposed to before the year is out, though?
Josh Beckett has seen his four-seamer velocity dip, and to make up for it, he's utilizing his sinker and change-up more often. The extra sinkers have worked out for him, but his change-up has been failing him consistently. Without the change, and without an effective four-seamer, the usefulness of his curve has dropped considerably. Opponents aren't swinging and missing on the bender as often as they used to, and it's also failing him in terms of inducing grounders. What you see in 2012 is a Josh Beckett who has had his best pitch neutered, yet he's still roughly average despite this.
That's an impressive feat in a way, but it's not helping Boston win more games. He briefly toyed with a slider to get some of those swings-and-misses back, but he's thrown just 20 of them all season, and it failed at its intended purpose. It's unlikely his lost velocity is coming back, as Beckett is pitching like someone who is attempting to adapt to changed circumstances. He's done this once before -- and successfully -- but without his curve along for the ride, things aren't going as smoothly the second time around.
For all the ragging on Beckett, he doesn't need to improve by much to help Boston win more often. The offense has lagged behind, and while Beckett should be pitching better, the Sox should also be able to win games where he throws a quality start. Beckett has five wins, Boston seven in his starts, yet he has 10 quality starts in 18 tries. That's an above-average rate for Beckett, so even if the overall ERA is ugly thanks to a few ugly starts, he's been doing his job more often than not.
Lester, on the other hand, has had a troubling season. Early on, Lester was failing to strike hitters out, and he was walking far too many batters. It was a continuation of his second half of 2011: after returning from a latissimus dorsi injury that put him on the DL, Lester walked over four batters per nine for the rest of the season. He threw over 100 innings and faced over 500 batters with a walk rate that lofty, and that's when things move out of small sample territory and into the realm of believable for free passes.
His mechanics were inconsistent and a bit sloppy, especially as he tired during his starts, and this led to further issues. Lester began striking hitters out and limiting his walks once again with his May 30 start against the Tigers, but there were problems associated with this. As the year progressed, Lester opened up his motion more, until finally the Blue Jays' clubhouse leaked that they were able to tell what Lester was throwing before he even threw it. It's a similar situation to what happened to Mark Melancon early in 2012, and to Justin Verlander back at the start of 2008 -- both hurlers were opening up too early, impeding their command, and in some cases, their velocity. This start, which took place on July 22, saw Lester give up 11 runs in four innings, courtesy of five walks and nine hits, four of which were homers.
There were warning signs leading up to this appearance. Prior to the Jays' start, starting with May 30, Lester had struck out 57 batters in his last 55 innings, and against just 11 walks. That looks like vintage Lester from this angle, but add in that he also owned a 4.88 ERA and .377 batting average on balls in play in that stretch, and you start to think there's an issue. Lester might have been a tad unlucky, but the real problems were his own, as he was once again throwing strikes, but not quality strikes. That's a very important distinction, one that can be measured in the difference between Cy Young-caliber Lester and the 2012 iteration.
His pitch selection was off, and his command was even worse. His inability to throw inside consistently meant he was living out over the plate more often than he should, and while it resulted in strikeouts on occasion, it also meant lots of hits. Some of them of the long variety, as Matthew Kory detailed in a breakdown of Lester against his former teammate Kevin Youkilis. What had at first been a slight opening in his motion widened over time, leading to Lester not only tipping his pitches to the Jays, but putting them down the middle of the plate, too.
This caused the Red Sox to go into what they called a "proactive plan" for Lester. Rather than throw a bullpen session before his next start against New York, Lester threw a simulated game, in order to force him to throw inside once more. It would be easier to see and correct his mistakes against actual hitters. Mistakes were the problem, too, as Lester's stuff and velocity remained -- he was simply broken, not injured.
While four runs in six innings against the Yankees might not seem like much, the fact he struck out six, walked just two, and allowed only four hits (even if two were homers) was a victory for Lester. Even better was Thursday's outing against the Twins, in which he gave up three runs in eight innings while striking out seven against no walks. The Twins might not be able to pitch, but they can hit, and Lester stopped them from doing so.
The thing with inconsistencies in command, though, is that the problem is in repeating the good. Lester hasn't proven anything yet with these 14 innings, but he has at least led people to believe that there's still hope for him in 2012. If that's the case, and he once again pitches inside with command of his stuff -- including the cutter that's been missing for him most of 2012 -- then Boston is absolutely still in this thing.