Another Jon Lester start, and another Red Sox loss in the books.
Boston's No. 1 starter heading into the 2012 season has been anything but an ace so far, and Tuesday night proved no different.
Lester took the mound against the White Sox in the hopes of turning around his underwhelming first half and starting anew with a post All-Star break gem. Instead, Lester was rocked for seven hits and six runs over four innings of work and ultimately saw his ERA climb to a gruesome 4.80 on the year.
The 7-5 loss was tough for Lester to swallow, but was likely even more miserable given the way it went down. Former Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis was the one to ultimately do in the Red Sox and run Lester from the outing, as Youk blasted a three-run home run over the Green Monster to give Chicago a 6-2 lead in the fourth inning. It was a demoralizing blow for the team, but it symbolized the figurative dagger through the heart for Lester.
The dejected look on the starter's face said it all as he sat dumbfounded in the dugout. Lester was at a loss for words in the locker room after the game, unable to truly explain what's been going wrong, but he was by no means lacking emotion.
"It's a frustrating year, a frustrating night," a visibly agitated Lester said after the game. "A loss is a loss, and it sucks."
His responses were very direct, but he still seemed rather confused by his ineffectiveness on the mound. Manager Bobby Valentine was equally as confused, trying to explain his starter's inability to the best of his ability.
"He's working as hard as anyone, thinking as much as anyone," Valentine said of Lester. "Maybe he's thinking too much, who knows?"
Lester has before been known as an overly emotional pitcher, often times being too critical on himself for missed locations or tough losses, so it's not entirely unlikely that he'd be over-analyzing his outings. So while many may believe that there's just something physically wrong with Lester, the numbers seem to indicate that the mental element could well be the true culprit.
The 28-year-old is throwing slightly more strikes than he did last season, tossing 63 percent of his pitches for strikes which is a minor improvement over the 62 percent seen in 2010 and 2011. He's also throwing first-pitch strikes at a higher rate than any previous season, getting 60 percent of his first pitches across for strikes which is but a mere two percent higher than last season.
On the other side of things, hitters are also making very similar contact with Lester's pitches this season. Opposing batters are making contact with 78 percent of Lester's pitches this year — the same rate as 2011 and just three percent higher than when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2010.
The only statistic that has seen a noticeable uptick is the home runs allowed, as Lester has already allowed 11 home runs in 112 innings — nearly one every 10 innings — which is a far higher rate than the 14 he allowed over 208 innings in 2010 — one in 15.
So as the numbers show a very similar trend to past seasons, the outcomes have been considerably different. The only viable explanation is that some sort of mental block has led to Lester's demise.
A perennial Cy Young candidate, Lester is expected to lead this Boston staff with the example he puts out on the diamond. Instead, he's proving to be in need of some guidance himself and may even require some extra bullpen sessions to work out the kinks. But while some pitchers desire rest or a "cool off period" to rediscover their form, Lester must just work the kinks out in real time.
Lester is a workhorse and has been since taking a permanent spot in the Red Sox rotation back in 2008, tossing less than 200 innings just once in his four major league seasons. Every pitcher goes through rough patches, and Lester has seen his fair share in the past. He regrouped to have arguably the best season of his career in 2010 — 19-9 record with a 3.25 ERA — after allowing four-plus runs and taking an 0-2 record with an 8.44 ERA into his fourth start of the season.
Many pitchers need their time off to regroup and eliminate the "poison" in their form, but Lester is the exact opposite type of pitcher. This is a guy who fought through a life-threatening case of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and became the ace of one of the preeminent teams in MLB. He doesn't need rest to figure out how to pitch well, he just needs to work hard and focus his attention on becoming that same pitcher once again.
So while the Red Sox continue to search for the right ingredients which will return them to their elusive days as the elite club in the major leagues, Lester will follow suit. It's without question that he'll work back to his No. 1 form, but it will be through unwavering dedication and keen attention to detail, not the typically prescribed R&R.