In a season where seemingly everything went wrong for the Boston Red Sox, it was only fitting that Jon Lester-- one of baseball’s more reliable pitchers from 2008-2011-- would suffer a career-worst campaign, a campaign so poor that his character was questioned by Boston fans and sports media alike, and his name even surfaced in offseason trade talks.
With Lester, fantasy owners have come to expect slow starts, but in 2012 he simply never got himself on track. After cratering during a horrific July which saw him go 0-3 with a 9.36 ERA, both the pitcher and his coaching staff were grasping for answers. When all was said and done, Lester had posted full-season worsts in ERA, WHIP, H/9 and HR/9, alongside a significant decline in strikeout rate, all while his left-on-base percentage had dropped to 67.6%, nearly seven points below his previous career-low. With the lefty struggling to string together quality starts and only once posting a monthly ERA under 4.01 (August, 3.59), it all added up to an unseemly 9-14 record for a pitcher who had entered 2012 with a sparkling .691 career winning percentage.
What's interesting about Lester's case is that a closer examination of the numbers doesn't really cast any light on why he had such a bad year. His BABIP was fairly stable relative to his career rate, his velocity was steady, his groundball rate was near his career average and his flyball rate actually improved despite posting a career-worst HR/FB rate of 13.9%. Lester also cut back on his walks and posted a solid 3.82 xFIP.
So what gives?
Let's just blame Bobby Valentine, because all signs point to Lester having a year of phenomenally bad luck. His stuff was still pretty good, his command-- which had been an issue in the past-- was fine, and he was as durable as ever with his fourth 200+ IP season in the past five years.
Lester is a strong bounce-back candidate in 2013. While perhaps a tad overrated in previous years, Boston's de facto ace is worth targeting as a buy-low candidate who could make a very real impact on your fantasy team. It's not advisable to draft Lester as one of your top two starters, but he makes for an intriguing value pick as a number three with upside. Expect his H/9 to normalize, an uptick in K's, fewer HR allowed and a corresponding drop in ERA. Additionally, don't discount the return of Lester’s former pitching coach John Farrell to the Boston dugout-- this time as manager-- which certainly can't hurt.
RotoBaller 2013 Projection: 205 IP, 16 W, 3.9 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 180K
Target Round: 13-14