Jon Lester is ending the year the way he started it.
In Lester’s first 4 starts in April, he compiled a 4-0 record with a 3.11 ERA. He commanded his fastball and cutter with velocity and was attacking hitters by pounding the strike zone consistently. In his last 6 starts, Lester has only been touched for 8 runs in 42 innings pitched, while lowering his ERA from 4.37 to 3.88 in those starts.
Now, Lester hasn’t reinvented the wheel here to get back on track. He has always been, and always will be, a pitcher who lives and dies by his cutter. In June, when he gave up 8 home runs and had an ERA above 7.00, his cutter was atrociously flat. Opponents were teeing off on it because he couldn’t locate it correctly, it kept leaking out towards the middle of the plate and just sitting there for hitters to clobber.
As a result, he kind of gave up on it, making things worse for the big lefty because the only success he’s ever had in his career was with that pitch.
But after the All-Star break, and even more so lately, Lester has seemed to gain his confidence back with the cutter. When Lester is on like he is now, his cutter has some nasty bite to it. He can place it on the outside corner and hitters, specifically right handers, tend to give up on it early. Once he establishes that, his secondary pitches just compliment it. It’s kind of like the cutter sets the table for everything else Jon Lester can throw, and he just wasn’t establishing that cutter to hitters when he was struggling.
His latest victims were the Detroit Tigers. One of baseball’s very best offenses was shut down by a vintage Lester in a possible playoff preview against Max Scherzer. He went seven strong innings, allowing one run, and nine punch outs. It was one of those games that just felt a lot more meaningful than a regular season game so it was huge to see Lester perform in a big spot.
The velocity on his pitches was something we haven’t seen out of Lester in some time, hitting 97 on the radar gun at one point. Lester’s cutter sat around 90.2 mph in his start against Detroit. To make a comparison, his cutter velocity was recorded on average as low as 85.8 mph in a start earlier this year. That’s a monumental difference when it comes to forcing hitters to react.
The Red Sox will go as far as their pitching will take them. All the talk about their offense is great and all, but starting pitching wins championships. Boston has the potential to match any team it might face in the playoffs arm for arm after the acquisition of Jake Peavy at the deadline, but that’s only if Clay Buchholz can return and pick up where he left off. Lester has been great lately, but without an ace in a five or seven games series, it would be tough to beat a team like Detroit with Scherzer and Verlander. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, it would just be difficult without a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.
All reports point to Buchholz making a September 10th return against Tampa Bay barring any setbacks, so that’s good news. But the Boston Red Sox are going to need both Lester and Buchholz performing at high-levels if they want to still be playing in the last week of October.