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What’s Eating You, Jon Lester?
- Updated: July 18, 2012
Let’s play a word association game: Jon Lester.
What does that make you think of?
A few years ago, Jon Lester was an inspirational pitcher who won the World Series for the Red Sox just two years after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, an unimaginable feat. Lester was drafted by the Sox back in 2002, in the 2nd round of the MLB draft, 57th overall. He pitched his first game with the Red Sox in 2006, after being recalled amid a rash of injuries. He pitched the rest of the season 7-2, with a 4.76 ERA over 81 1/3 innings, and was diagnosed mid-season.
After being treated, Lester returned in mid-2007 and would go on to pitch 5 2/3 shutout innings, giving up just three hits and three walks, plus three K’s to clinch the Red Sox 2007 World Series championship. With that win, Lester made history becoming only the third pitcher in major league history win a series in a clinching game in his first post-season start. Lester went 4-0 on the season, with a 4.57 ERA over 63 innings pitched.
It seemed like Jon Lester could only get better–he had beat cancer and managed to win a World Series in the same year. In 2008, he went on to pitch a no-hitter in May against the Kansas City Royals, a 5-inning shutout in his first start at Yankee Stadium, was the American League Pitcher of the Month in both July and again in September, pitched 14 innings without an earned run in the ALCS, had the second highest winning percentage of all starting pitchers in the MLB (27-8, .771) and also lead the team in most number of innings pitched during the season with 210 1/3 innings.
Lester went on in 2009 and 2010 to lower his ERA, up his winning percentage, pick up another AL Pitcher of the Month award, pitch more perfect innings (that almost lead him to three additional no-hitters against the Yankees, Rangers and Mariners) and picked up his 50th win during the 2010 season.
Right about now, you’re having all those happy memories of Jon Lester–the World Series trophy, the winning first pumps, high-fives, and the happily sung lyrics of “Sweet Caroline” echoing through Fenway Park.
Then 2011 happened. Lester went 15-9 on the season, with a 3.41 ERA, finishing 17th in the league. He also finished 11th in the league in strikeouts and 10th in number of wins, but lost his last three consecutive decisions, including the game the Red Sox were eliminated. Which would’ve been fine, but not the previously great Jon Lester that Red Sox fans were used to… until the stories about chicken and beer came out, and Lester was the first to admit that he was part of it, saying he only participated on days he wasn’t pitching. That’s when all hell broke loose.
And now we’re here at 2012. Lester is 5-7 on the season. His ERA has been on the rise since the Red Sox struggle began back in April, and is currently at 4.80, the highest of his career. At Fenway, Lester’s ERA is 6.29 in 11 starts, giving up 44 earned runs over 63 innings pitched. Jon Lester isn’t happy and it’s showing.
Even Peter Gammons wrote an article saying that Lester, like many other players who’ve expressed discontent with the Red Sox this season, wanted out of Boston–and we’re all seeing the effect that’s had on for instance–Kevin Youkilis. During the All-Star Break, Lester shot back via Twitter saying he has every intention of spending the rest of his career in Boston, but his performance certainly doesn’t have anyone convinced, especially after saying, ”Frustrating night, frustrating year…I’m getting tired of it,” last night after the Red Sox 7-5 loss to the Chicago White Sox, which included a 3-run home run by Kevin Youkilis off Lester.
“It’s frustrating showing up every day busting my a**, going out there every day when I pitch busting my a** and just not pitching well,” Lester said. “I’m letting my team down. Guys did a great job in that first inning picking me up, and I didn’t pick them right back up. I’ve got to get them back in the dugout and I didn’t do it. I haven’t been doing it all year. That’s got to change.”
Lester said that he “feels fine” and that “mechanically” everything “feels fine”, but when the ball leaves his hand “it’s not in the zone, it’s up a little.”
So what’s eating you, Jon Lester?
This 5-7 win loss record is. The problems in the clubhouse are. The media is. The fans are. Here I am contributing to what’s eating you, Jon Lester.
You’re a professional pitcher. You made a mistake last year, and people aren’t happy about it, and now they’re coming down on you. The Red Sox management and operations are a mess–we know you and your teammates are “all good” now, after all those conflicting reports had us thinking you all hated each other; your teammates drove Terry Francona, who once talked about you as if you were his own son, “I feel like… my son threw a no-hitter. It’s probably selfish on my part to even say something like that. But I think it’s obvious how we feel about this kid,” and your GM Theo Epstein skipped town leaving all but his stalker behind, and now you’re not happy with what you got in return (Cherington and Valentine).
But you still have a job to do. A $30 million dollar job, with a $14 million club option coming up in two years.
There is obviously something psychological going on here. Jon Lester is healthy, by all physical accounts, but mentally, I’m not so sure that he can focus. There’s a new report on who hates who, what’s going on in the clubhouse, and who’s getting traded, every day. Some people handle that better than others, and after facing the music following last September, Lester isn’t handling any of it well.
If the Red Sox are smart, they will ask Lester to go chat with a sports psychologist in between his starts. College athletes and Olympic hopefuls do it all the time. Hell, I bet you tons of professional athletes do it, and we don’t hear about it, because mental health in sports is kind of a taboo-topic.
Lester needs to talk out what’s bugging him, find a way to focus on his pitching and tune everything else out, because whatever he’s doing now, is clearly not working. Lester doesn’t need the disabled list, or some rehab starts in Gulf Coast or Pawtucket to get back in his groove, just an hour a week to figure out how to bypass his mental block and get back to that “Somebody We Used to Know”.
(Statistics sources: Boston Red Sox, ESPN and Elias Sports Bureau)