Life on the mound may not begin at 30 for Jon Lester, but the left-hander has no intention of letting it end at this phase of his career.
That determination is, of course, a critical element in the negotiations surrounding his next contract. While much of the attention right now -- at a time when the pitcher and the Red Sox are (as Lester told reporters on Friday) "headed in the right direction" -- has focused on when and if Lester might receive a new deal beyond the 2014 season, the pitcher's ability to age gracefully is at the heart of whether or why the Sox would be motivated to re-sign him.
Lester is now preparing for his seventh full major league season, having accumulated 1,376 big league (regular season) innings. Thus far this year, he's looked no worse for wear. Though his throwing program began later than usual this spring, he's been sharp in his three starts, logging 12 2/3 innings while giving up just one run on seven hits (.159 batting average against), striking out 14 and walking three.
That performance has occurred against the backdrop of a life milestone. In January, just a couple of months removed from his extraordinary postseason run, Lester reached the "dreaded" age 30 milestone.
He is aware that some look at his age and see a pitcher who has performed at a high level but whose best years are behind him. He understands why that age raises concern about pitchers' futures, but he insists that he possesses two key traits to help him age well.
First, Lester suggests he has a well-defined routine to provide him with the basis for physical consistency. Secondly, Lester suggests that he has reached a point where he understands his craft in a way that will allow him to adapt to the inevitable diminution in raw strength that he will face in the coming years.
"I don't think it's complete B.S. [to be concerned about pitchers after they turn 30]," Lester said earlier this spring. "I think the biggest thing is, you've got to look at individuals. You've got to look at how they take care of themselves and go about everything. I think if you take A pitcher and B pitcher, they're the same age, have the same amount of innings, they have the same starts, all that stuff, and they both get to 30 at the same time and this guy doesn't really take care of himself and this guy does, I feel like it's going to matter.
"The older you get obviously things start to decline. Then you just have to figure out how to go from there. But I don't like the fact that people say, 'OK, you're 30, you're basically dead -- all your good years are behind you.' I don't feel like that's the case.
"I still feel like I have a lot of years left. Obviously when things start to decline and you don't have 95 [mph] anymore, by then you should be able to know how to pitch, change speeds and location, all that stuff. I think each year for me I've learned something a little bit different."
Last year, Lester averaged 93.7 mph with his four-seam fastball, consistent with his numbers from both 2011 and 2012, down slightly from the 94.3 mph he averaged in 2010 and the 95.0 mph he averaged in 2009. The difference may sound fairly incidental -- and it would be a mistake to characterize the left-hander as anything but a power pitcher, at a time when his velocity remains among roughly the top 20 starters in the game -- but it's required early adaptations that Lester now feels he's successfully implemented.
Life at 30 means life on some days without 95 (mph). The pitcher has learned that he can still enjoy considerable success on those occasions where his velocity is dialed back.
"Back in the day I didn't have to worry about location as much. It was more areas because you threw hard enough. You could get away with some things. The older you get, the more you've got to hone in on being down, executing pitches and all that," said Lester. "I think the effort level is different. Now, I understand the games where I don't have 95, you feel groggy or for whatever reason you're not clicking or you're not all the way there, to not pound my head against the wall and just use what I have that day. I think that's just something you learn. As a younger guy, you turn around and don't see 94, 95, 96, you say, '[Expletive] -- what's wrong?' You start trying to get those numbers. As you get older, I think the pride goes down a little bit. You've got to be realistic. You don't have it all the time."
Part of Lester's evolution as a pitcher last year was evident in his commitment to diminish his walks totals. He issued 2.8 walks per nine innings (matching his career-best rate of 2008 and 2009) -- though Lester rightly notes that 13 of his walks came in two starts where his mechanics were off; in the rest of his outings, he allowed just 2.4 walks per nine, and he felt his control was more consistent than at any other point in his career, a necessary element to his continued success.
"With age, getting older and stuff declining, you don't have the stuff to allow guys to get on base and pitch out of jams as much. If you're not allowing those walks, those free runs and free base runners to get on, it makes your job a lot easier," explained Lester. "They have to earn it. They have to get three hits to score as opposed to one."
With the decreased walks have also come a drop in strikeouts. In 2013, Lester punched out 7.5 batters per nine innings -- up slightly from his 7.3 punchouts per nine in 2012, but down from his 9.4 strikeouts per nine in 2009-11.
While it is natural to interpret that decrease as a marker of declining stuff, Lester says it's also a byproduct of a philosophical commitment to stay in the strike zone. By no means does the left-hander downplay the value of getting outs without contact, but he also recognizes that a decrease in strikeouts can help him to remain a workhorse, with shorter at-bats permitting him to work deeper into contests.
"You get swings and misses nibbling because they don't know if it's a ball or strike," said Lester. "Obviously you have the top echelon guys that have just unbelievable stuff -- Yu Darvish -- they're going to go out there and every night strike out 10. But in this league, especially this division, it's so hard to strike guys out. It's so hard to do it consistently. I feel like, too, I'm a better pitcher if I strike out 180-190 guys. I'm not throwing as many pitches, I feel like. The pitch counts may be the same, but I feel like those foul balls and long counts are a little more frequent when you're trying to punch out everybody all the time."
As he discusses some of the changes that he's implemented, it is notable to hear how at ease Lester is in his thoughts about his craft. There have been times -- most notably 2012, but also in stretches in the first half of 2013 and early in other seasons -- where he has clearly been a pitcher who has been searching, wondering about the absence of various aspects of his arsenal as opposed to secure in its strengths.
Lester notes that he didn't look at any video of himself during this past offseason. That wasn't always the case ("[Looking at video in the offseason was] kind of more insecurity when you're younger, going I've got to figure something out," said Lester, who also noted that after 2012, he had no choice but to review video given his needed mechanical fixes). But now, Lester's comfort level with himself as a pitcher has reached a point where such exercises have become unnecessary.
It's another marker in his maturation as a pitcher, one that has made him a model for the younger pitchers who are trying to learn a routine for big league success.
"It's cool [to be a model for other pitchers]. It means you've been around. The stuff that you're doing, your management and coaching staff look upon that as something that's right. I take pride in that," said Lester. "Not too long ago I was in their shoes, going through my first big league camp and feeling the things they're feeling, and I think it helps when you have somebody you can follow. It's a catch-22 for me. It's great but at the same time, I'm not really a young guy anymore."
Lester accepts his role as a paragon with mixed sentiments -- a reminder that age can be a two-sided phenomenon, in which decreases in pure strength and stuff come with gains in knowledge and experience. He is not "a young guy" anymore, but he hardly feels as if his best days as a pitcher are behind him.
Jon Lester is willing to bet on the baseball that lies ahead of him as a 30-year-old. The Sox appear willing to do the same, given his unquestioned status as the anchor of their staff, a title he has earned based on the body of work over the last six seasons and reinforced so dramatically with what he accomplished last October. He is a pitcher whose age has allowed him, thus far, to become wise rather than wizened, who believes that he is capable of adapting in a way that permits him to maintain success rather than seeing it elude his chase at this stage of his career and life.