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A Look at Jon Lester’s Early Struggles

05.21.09 at 2:52 pm ET
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It is not health. It is not stuff. Jon Lester is still strong as an ox, still features a mid-90s fastball with life, a curveball that gives left-handers fits and a cutter that eats the hands of right-handers. He’s striking out a remarkable 10.3 batters per nine innings, second in the American League.

“His stuff is still tremendous,” reaffirmed Sox catcher Jason Varitek.

Yet his results to this point have not been. Lester has given up 13 runs and 18 hits in his last 10 innings, spanning two straight losses. He is 2-4 with a 6.51 ERA, and has delivered quality starts in just three of his eight outings. He’s allowed at least five earned runs in five outings, having given up such a total one more time than he did in all of 2008.

So, if his stuff is as good as it was a year ago, what gives?

For the most part, the difference has simply been precision. Last year, Lester lived in the bottom of the strike zone, getting grounders in droves while also keeping the ball in the park (0.6 homers per nine innings). He had three different streaks of four games without permitting a homer. This year, his mistakes have been up in the strike zone, allowing opponents to hit a somewhat startling 10 homers against him (1.9 per nine innings) through the first quarter of the season.

“There’s no physical issues. It’s a matter of consistent command to quality locations of the zone,” said pitching coach John Farrell. “He’s given more opportunities up in the zone for balls to travel. Where he was dominant in the bottom of the zone last year, with a little more consistent strikes to his arm side of the plate, those are two areas that we continue to stress.”

It has been also noteworthy that Lester has been victimized for several big innings this year. In nine different innings, he’s allowed two or more runs:

Game 1: 4 runs – 5th inning
Game 2: 5 runs – 2nd inning
Game 4: 2 runs – 4th inning
Game 5: 2 runs – 1st inning
Game 5: 2 runs – 4th inning
Game 6: 3 runs – 5th inning
Game 7: 2 runs – 1st inning
Game 7: 6 runs – 5th inning
Game 8: 4 runs – 6th inning

The difference between an ability to limit damage to a single run, versus permitting a bunch of crooked numbers, typically represents the fine line between a quality and even dominating outing and one in which a pitcher is left to shake his head. In Lester’s case, it would appear that there is quite a bit of head-shaking at work, to the point where certain innings have seemed to snowball as the 25-year-old has grown frustrated.

“Because the results haven’t been there, sometime the frustration within the game gets compounded. Yet that can begin to blind game awareness between the line,” said Farrell. “Getting back to his core beliefs and what he trusts most about his physical abilities then executing those. If a pitch isn’t called or a play isn’t made, don’t make more with it. Maintain a relentless approach going forward.”

Because Lester’s abilities are still evident in the quality of his stuff, the Sox are confident that he has a good chance to rediscover the formula that permitted him immense success a year ago. All the same, his unexpected early-season run of difficulty offers a reminder, in some respects, of the fact that Lester is not yet a finished product. Despite his emergence in 2008, Varitek has cautioned since spring training that Lester is still a developing pitcher who must endure some of the inconsistencies of being in just his second full major-league season.

“I think everybody forgets every once in a while that he’s still pretty youthful. I believe he’ll be better in September than he is on April 1,” said Varitek. “The stuff is there. It’s just a matter of consistent execution. That’s still part of him, at this point in his career, learning Jon…He’s just one good start from putting it all together.”

Read More: Jason Varitek, jon farrell, Jon Lester,
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