Lester, a left-hander, went 9-14 with a career-high 4.82 ERA last year. That he posted a team-high 17 quality starts only highlighted the frustration that enveloped the team all season. In the second half, as the Red Sox saw any hope of a respectable season slipping away, Lester was 4-8 with a 5.23 ERA. As a result, he became one of the poster boys for a team that symbolized dysfunction. In the end, the Red Sox finished 69-93 and in last place of the American League East.
So, Lester, who turned 29 in January and is entering his eighth season, knows many eyes will be on him this season. And without veteran Josh Beckett, among other familiar faces, in the Boston rotation this year, he knows what his role is.
“I love it. It’s great. Bring it on,” he said Wednesday, a day after pitchers and catchers reported to JetBlue Park. “Because what you guys expect of me is nothing [compared to what] I expect of myself. I expect a lot. That’s why as far as me being serious, that’s why I am the way I am. I try to live up to my own expectations before everybody else’s. Obviously, that’s never going to happen.
“But I take my job serious and I want to reach those [expectations]. Just because I don’t doesn’t mean it’s a failed season.”
Boston manager John Farrell, who was the Red Sox pitching coach from 2007-10, could be a key. After two years as manager in Toronto, he is back with the Red Sox and Lester, who had some of his best seasons during Farrell’s previous tenure.
“He’s a vital member of our team and certainly our rotation,” Farrell said. “Just having Jon pitch to his capabilities and his talent, there’s a number of years that speak to that.”
August’s blockbuster trade with the Dodgers saw the dispatching of Beckett, Lester’s close friend. As such, the latter is now the longest-tenured member of the rotation, and will be looked on as a leader.
“There are those who lead by example — how they carry themselves between the lines, [how they put in the] work that they do when no one sees them in between starts, [how they] stand up and acknowledge that when things don’t go well, [they] take responsibility for that,” Farrell said. “There’s different ways that people show their leadership capabilities or skills. And he has those.”
But Lester knows there are things — other than command and mechanics — that need work. He has often been criticized for his demeanor on the mound — the body language and the verbal griping that can’t disguise his displeasure. He knows those are things that have to change.
“I know I’ve had some problems with umpires. I know I’ve had some problems with body language at times. A lot of people have,” Lester said. “It’s something that we all struggle with and it’s something I can get better with. Every year, I strive to get better at it.”
Boston can sometimes be a roadblock in that quest. There is a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations and a lot of media watching his every move.
“I love baseball. I love Boston,” he said. “People don’t see me other than the fifth day. When I’m out there, I’m not out there to kid around. I’m not out there to joke around with hitters. At the same time, I’m having fun. It may not look like it. I may be cussing up a storm and yelling at somebody, but I’m having fun. I love to pitch. I love everything that is pitching, everything there is to baseball.”
Lester won 34 games in the previous two seasons leading up to last year.
“I don’t want to also come across as lackadaisical and not really caring about working hard. I take everything I do very seriously. I want my workouts to be the way they should be. I want my bullpen to go the way it should. I want my game to go the way it should,” he said. “If it doesn’t, I’m going to be [upset]. That’s just who I am. At the same time, yeah, I can improve on those in-between days where you don’t take it as serious. But I’d rather be on the serious side and work my way down than be the goofball and work my way up.”
Despite all the negatives last season, Lester insists there were positives, too. They’re where he wants his focus.
“Hopefully, you just keep building off those,” he said, “and your expectations get higher and higher from there.”