Before 2011, Jon Lester and Justin Verlander were viewed as belonging to the same pitching class, two young hurlers with similarly outrageous power stuff and numbers, both capable of complete dominance (witness the fact that both had tossed no-hitters) that fueled tremendous expectations.
In 2009-10, Verlander was 37-18 with a 3.41 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings for the Tigers. Lester, meanwhile, was 33-18 with a 3.33 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings in Boston.
Verlander was more of a workhorse, having logged 464 innings to Lester’s 411 in those two years. Lester, however, resided in the far more formidable AL East while having his workload measured by the Sox in an attempt to preserve bullets for October.
There were compelling arguments to be made for the superiority of each. At the least, their achievements so closely mirrored each other that it was difficult not to view them as being at least in a similar category.
And then came 2011. Verlander put up a season for the ages, winning the pitching triple crown by leading the AL in wins (24, against just five losses), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250), compiling an astonishing 251 innings en route to both Cy Young and MVP honors.
“It’s crazy to think a pitcher nowadays can have a year like that,” Lester said of the pitcher against whom he is matched up on Opening Day. “To sit back and look at it is pretty impressive.”
As for Lester? As a 27-year-old, he produced numbers that were good enough to earn him a spot on the All-Star team, but that failed to create waves given the bar he’s set for himself. It was a season that the pitcher deemed “a step back in a lot of things,” whether his feel for his mechanics, the absence of his curveball, his first trip to the DL since he became a rotation fixture, the inability to log 200 innings or, ultimately, the failure of his team.
And with all of those deficiencies in his season, what did Lester do? Lester went 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA and 182 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings. It is with mixed feelings that he reflects on that performance.
“You’re going to have years like that, where no matter what you do, no matter what type of work you put in, it just doesn’t feel right. I had that,” Lester said. “I think last year was a different year for me. I learned a lot from it. And I was still able to win 15 games. It’s something I’m proud of, looking back on some of the things I went through out on the mound, and I was still able to win a lot of games.”
Indeed, the ability to succeed despite mechanical struggles allowed Lester to continue his run as one of the most consistent pitchers in the game. He now has four straight years of at least 15 wins and a sub-3.50 ERA.
Verlander, who went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA as a 25-year-old in 2008, cannot lay claim to such company. Instead, Lester is joined by CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay as the only three pitchers in the majors to have four straight years of reaching that victory plateau while keeping their ERAs at such modest levels.
The left-hander first learned of his lofty company this offseason, when he was switching his representation from SFX to the ACES agency. The idea of ranking among the most consistently excellent starters in the game offers the 28-year-old a measure of pride.
“When people mention those stats or compare you to those guys -- heck, those guys are my idols. CC and Roy, the older guys in this league that I’ve watched, Andy Pettitte -- the guys who I’ve watched for 100 years, carving up everybody -- it’s an honor to be compared to those guys,” Lester said. “Sometimes it’s nice to hear that. It just reaffirms your work ethic, to make sure you get into the gym and do those things you need to do.
“You hear a compliment, you stand a little taller and feel better about yourself. But if no one says anything, you’re still going to be proud of what you do,” he added. “I feel proud of what I do. I’m proud of the way I work and prepare every five days to pitch. I know I can’t control when I go out there and pitch to see what happens, but no matter what the season is, I want to look back and say, ‘I couldn’t have given any more.’ ”
Lester feels that he has done just that, with the consistent track record to suggest as much. That being the case, he is less than thrilled with the common anticipation of a singularly dominant breakthrough season.
He is proud of what he has accomplished, and feels that it requires neither apology nor a mention of what might be on the horizon.
Would he love to put together a season like the one that Verlander had in 2011? Of course. Does he think it will detract from his career record if he does not? Nope.
“I think people expect me every year to go out and win 20 games, and if I don’t do that, it’s a bad season. I don’t think that I get a lot of the credit of the seasons that I have put together,” Lester said. “It’s obviously a nice expectation to have, but at the same time, when people talk about the elite pitchers in the game, they throw me in as, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s one, too.’
“It’s frustrating. I don’t know why that is. It is nice to be recognized as that at sometimes, just to reassure your work and for your confidence. Yeah, the expectation of winning 20 games is great. I don’t want any less. I want to win as many games as I can every year. Hell, I want to win 33 when you get down to it. That’s a compliment, but to be mentioned every once in a while with those [elite] guys would be nice.”
For the Sox, while Lester remains deferential to his peers and in particular to Beckett -- a pitcher to whom he looked up as he found his footing in the majors -- Lester already possesses tremendous stature. He is the Opening Day starter for a reason, as he is the constant in a sea of rotation question marks, the pitcher whose track record suggests that the Sox know what they will get from him, the ace whom minor leaguers want to emulate, just as Lester once looked to Beckett and Curt Schilling to figure out what he was doing.
Yet as pleased as Lester is with his career performance and what he has achieved, he also acknowledges that he would like to exceed the bar that he’s already set. While he is admittedly frustrated by those who want more of him than what he’s already done over the past four seasons, Lester also hopes and believes that he can do more.
“I would hope that my best is still ahead of me. If I say my best is in the past, then I’m kind of screwed. I might as well just retire,” he said with a laugh. “I hope that the best is in front of me.”
And that, in turn, brings the conversation back to Verlander. Lester believes that, in a year in which everything broke his way, he would be capable of posting the sort of monster numbers that Verlander had a year ago.
Perhaps it would be unrealistic for him to think of matching his Opening Day counterpart’s innings load. ("He’s a freak. It doesn’t seem to add up for him. He’s got that rubber arm. More power to you -- keep doing it if you can -- but I also think that’s in part a testament to our division.") But aside from that, Lester suggests that he and his rotation mates are capable of combining dominance with the support of an elite offense to post huge numbers.
In 2010, Lester suggests, he got a taste of what it was like to have consistent mastery of a full four-pitch repertoire to produce what he considers the best year of his career, a season in which he went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA. If he can once again feel comfortable in his delivery, thus allowing him to unlock an outstanding four-pitch mix -- the mid-90s fastball, the diving curve that eluded him last year, the changeup that ducks away from the bats of right-handers and the cutter that is considered one of the best in the game -- then Lester believes that a great deal is within his grasp.
But a Cy Young and MVP? Could Lester envision a scenario in which he pitched well enough to collect those two pieces of hardware?
Verlander has already stated that he wants to repeat as a dual recipient of those awards. But while Lester admires the bravado of the Tigers ace, he declines to dedicate any thought to those individual honors.
Lester does hold himself to a high standard, and he does want to be considered as one of the best pitchers in the game. That said, the experience of winning the clinching game of the World Series in 2007 is even more meaningful to the 28-year-old. And as he gets ready for the unveiling of the 2012 campaign, it is that goal that will propel him.
“I’m not saying anything bad about [Verlander], but for me, if [winning the Cy Young and MVP] is my goal coming into the season, I have the wrong goals,” Lester said. “I don’t win a Cy Young or an MVP or any awards without my team. If our team is successful, if our team gets to the playoffs, if we win 90-plus games and if I’m healthy, the rest of the stuff should take care of itself.
“If I’m fortunate enough to win a Cy Young in my career, great. If I don’t, I don’t care. I want to win more World Series. I think that’s more important in the greater scheme of things than a Cy Young on your wall. I was fortunate for a couple of years to be even considered for one. I got some votes. That’s great. It’s awesome. But I’d rather do what we did in ’07 than do that.”
But of course the idea of a dominating Lester is inseparable from the thought of the Red Sox returning to that lofty status. Just as the Tigers’ fortunes appear to rest heavily on the right arm of Verlander, so, too, do the Sox’ hopes ride on the left arm of their Opening Day starter.
That is not to say that Lester needs to be what Verlander was in 2011 for the Sox to contend for a championship. But, starting on Thursday, the Sox need him to be a source of reliable excellence with whom the team would be willing to take its chances against anyone -- including the reigning Cy Young/MVP. In other words, the Sox need Lester to be precisely what he has been for the last four years -- not necessarily more, but certainly not less.