It’s a small thing, and Jon Lester insists that it does not bother him. But he does notice.
When Josh Beckett takes the mound at Fenway Park, ‘K’ cards fan across the center field side of the Monster Seats to record the pitcher’s punchouts during any given start. The same treatment has been afforded in recent years to Daisuke Matsuzaka.
But no one seems to be taking notice that Lester has become more of a strikeout pitcher than either of those two teammates. With 187 strikeouts, Lester is on the cusp of not only the 200 K plateau that defines elite power pitchers, but also a piece of Red Sox history.
With four more strikeouts, Lester will surpass Bruce Hurst’s record (achieved in 1987) for the most strikeouts by a Sox left-handed pitcher in a single season. By the end of Tuesday's game against the Rays, Lester will likely obliterate Hurst’s southpaw Sox record of 190 punchouts.
Yet still, no ‘K’ cards.
“It’d be cool. That is cool,” Lester said of the fan ritual. “I don’t have a K in my name. Simple as that. (Matsuzaka and Beckett) do. It’s a cool thing. There’s obvious reasons why they do that. It’s a good deal for them, but it doesn’t bother me either way.”
The point is debatable, since past recipients of the strikeout star treatment included both Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. What is inarguable is that Lester has emerged into one of the dominant power pitchers in the majors, a hurler armed to the teeth with dominant, swing-and-miss stuff and a growing knowledgebase about how to use it.
Lester ranks third in the A.L. with his 187 strikeouts, and second with 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings. He has performed as the single most overpowering left-handed starter in the league, a title that even CC Sabathia would seem unable to claim based on performance to date this year.
Sox manager Terry Francona, who admittedly hates comparing players of one era to those from another, couldn’t help himself. Earlier this year, after watching Lester mix 98 mph gas with a buzzsaw cutter and lethal off-speed curveball-changeup mix, Francona said that his pitcher reminded him of Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, who ranks 11th in wins and fourth in punchouts in baseball history.
The strikeouts are just one of several signs that Lester, who takes the mound on Tuesday in the series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, is a more polished and dominant pitcher than he was even a year ago.
The evidence of that notion may not lie in wins and losses or ERA (after going 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 2008, Lester is 10-7 with a 3.60 mark this year), though it is worth noting that Lester has been the best pitcher not only on the Sox but, by some measures, in the American League since May 31. After going 2-5 with a 6.07 ERA in his first 10 starts, he is 7-2 with a 2.24 ERA that is tops in the A.L. since that time.
Beyond wins and ERA, virtually all of the pitcher’s other numbers are better than they were in 2008. And the pitcher confirms that he feels like he is better now than when he established himself as one of the top pitchers in the game in 2008.
“I think I’m one year older, maybe a little bit more mature, maybe know myself as a pitcher a little bit more,” Lester said of his 2009 versus 2008 seasons. “I think that this year I’m more of a complete pitcher.”
Lester offers the judgment matter of factly, as if he is not surprised to enjoy this perch. Then again, no one else who has followed his professional career seems terribly surprised by the development, either.
Lester was the first draft pick of the current Red Sox ownership group, selected in the second round with the 57th overall pick in 2002. (The Sox had lost their first-round choice when they signed free-agent Johnny Damon.) The team signed him for a $1 million bonus – vastly outspending the recommended slot bonus – at a time when he typically pitched in the high-80s while occasionally cracking 90 mph.
Even then, however, the player development staff believed that Lester could develop into a strikeout pitcher. He struck out six batters per nine innings in his first professional season in 2003, then jumped that rate to more than one punchout per inning in 2004 when he reached Hi A Sarasota in 2004.
“Being this strikeout pitcher that he is, probably a lot of people thought it was in there,” said Al Nipper, Lester’s pitching coach with Sarasota in 2004. “I don’t think anybody is surprised.”
“We always thought he had a chance to strike big league hitters out,” confirmed Red Sox assistant GM Ben Cherington, who served as Red Sox farm director from 2003-06, “because his fastball always got swings/misses (even at 90 mph) and the cutter really developed in Hi A and became a weapon.”
The cutter developed under Nipper in Sarasota. Indeed, almost everything about Lester’s game developed under Nipper, whom Lester has credited in the past with rebuilding his mechanics and setting him on the course that has led him to this point of his career.
Nipper insists that the credit belongs to Lester, but it would be difficult to undersell the changes that the pitcher made on the mound five years ago.
“He always had a live arm, there’s no question about that. He had a live fastball. He had deception. I think it was a work in progress at the beginning,” said Nipper. “He wasn’t throwing as closed. He was throwing more open. He landed open. He didn’t get as much turn and his hips involved in his delivery as much.
“We really worked with him on that. We took him down to the ASMI clinic (the sports medicine institute in Birmingham, Alab., that is the home of Dr. James Andrews), so we did a lot of work with that. It was an ongoing process. And we got that kind of straightened out.”
Lester spent less time fighting his body in his delivery, and instead – with his hips and legs working with his prized left arm rather than against it – his velocity went from pedestrian to plus. That being accomplished, Nipper also went about working with Lester to develop a cutter that could pound the hands of right-handed hitters, and the young pitcher was on his way.
Lester subjected himself to immense self-scrutiny then, just as he does now. (“I’m still hard on myself,” Lester said. “I’m still wanting perfection.”) And so Nipper and team psychologist Bob Tewskbury also worked with the pitcher on the mental side of the game.
The pitcher, in turn, absorbed everything that was thrown at him. That quest for perfection made him a receptive audience for any lesson that he received.
“He was always so attentive and such a student of the game. He always wanted to learn, he was such a hard worker,” said Nipper. “He had this quiet confidence about himself. He was always starved to learn, and always asking questions. He just had the It Factor.”
Yet the measure of Lester’s talents at the major-league level only truly began in 2008. In both 2006, when he was pitching while cancer was starting to invade his body, and in 2007, when his strength was still diminished following the offseason treatments that wiped out his Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, his future as a power pitcher was not obvious.
But last year, when fully healthy, Lester’s velocity jumped into the mid-90s, and seemed to build as the year progressed. Lester kept adding muscle as the season went on, but he did more than that.
He also improved the way in which he attacked the strike zone, learning to employ his fastball (which he had used primarily to the right side of the plate – away from left-handers, and in on righties) to both sides, creating a less predictable at-bat for opponents.
“There were so many years in the minor leagues where I didn’t have to do that,” said Lester. “It was one-side dominant, and you either hit it or you don’t. I had success, so why change? Now, you’re in the big leagues, you have to make adjustments.”
This year, he has further unbalanced his opponents through the addition of a changeup that he is throwing with complete confidence. Lester said that there were games last year where he might throw the pitch once.
In 2009, it is a tool that can elicit either swings and misses or weak contact, regardless of the count. Because that pitch is now available to him, it also gives the hitter greater uncertainty about what he might see, both in terms of velocity and the side of the plate that might be attacked, thereby making his fastball a more effective pitch.
“The addition of his changeup has allowed another off-speed pitch to slow some hitters down and make his fastball that much more effective,” said Sox pitching coach John Farrell. “There’s more of an understanding and an awareness of the types of weapons that he has. That, in and of itself, is going to allow a clearer picture and vision of how he wants to attack hitters. It goes back to the multiple weapons that he has.” (For more on Lester's changeup, click here to read "Change Comes for Lester.")
He has four pitches that he can use to dissect different parts of the strike zone. That overall package has made Lester capable of dominating opposing lineups, and brought him to the cusp of a franchise milestone for punchouts.
And yet, Lester admits that he doesn’t measure himself by either 191 (the Sox record for strikeouts by a lefty) or 200.
“I’d give 150 of them back if I had more wins,” said Lester. “Strikeouts are cool. They’re great. But when it’s all said and done, you get paid to win games, not to strike people out.”
From that standpoint, Lester concedes that his 10-win total represents something of a letdown.
“It’s nice to get wins. I’m not going to lie. It’s nice to see your name in the win column and not in the no-decision column or the loss column,” said Lester. “When it’s all said and done and you look back at your season, you’ve got to look back more at quality starts than wins and losses sometimes.”
By that measure, Lester has been one of the best in the game. He has 18 quality starts among his 26 trips to the hill, tied for fourth in the A.L. and best on the Red Sox. But he has often received little reward for such efforts.
Lester has turned in seven quality starts in which he has recorded a no-decision, tied for the fourth most in the majors.
The trend has been even more pronounced of late, as Lester is 1-0 with five no-decisions in his last six starts despite a 2.97 ERA.
Even so, while the wins total has left some room for dissatisfaction, the overall performance in a season that started poorly has added to the pitcher’s confidence in what he is doing. Lester has been able to look beyond the game outcomes that he cannot control, and instead recognize that he has laid a foundation for success, both now and into the future.
“I definitely learned from success (in 2008). This year, starting out the way I did, I think I learned a lot from that as far as who I am as a person, not abandoning the things that had worked for me in the past – work ethic and my routine – not just abandoning it and saying, ‘Screw it – I’m starting over.’
“I didn’t do that. I think that helped me get out of that rut a little bit. Obviously, it took a little bit, but it was quicker than it would have been otherwise.”
The fact that Lester has shown the ability to rebound from early-season adversity, and that he is gaining a growing understanding of how he can attack opposing hitters, suggests the potential to perform at an elite level for years to come.
Catcher Jason Varitek insists that the 25-year-old is still developing in his second full big-league season. If true, then the Red Sox record that Lester is poised to break on Tuesday may simply prove the first of several.
“He’s becoming one of the most dominant left-handed pitchers in the game and he’s just scraping the surface right now,” said Nipper. “He’s going to be one of the dominant pitchers in baseball as the years tick by. He is just going to keep getting better and better and better.”