All-Aughts Team of the Decade SP4: Jon Lester

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Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester throws a pitch against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York

Jon Lester, entering his age 26 season, is a prime candidate to be named a starting pitcher of the 2010-19 Team of the Decade, which would mean he was named to back-to-back Team of Decades.

Drafted in the second round of the 2002 draft, Lester methodically rose up the minor leagues (Fire Brand archive: Not so Minor: Players on the Rise, 10/10/04) and prospect rankings, going so far as to be included in the A-Rod megatrade that never was prior to the 2004 season. I speak, of course, of Manny Ramirez and Lester heading to Texas for Alex Rodriguez.

With respect to Lester, I think all of us feel we dodged a bullet there.

Lester made his major league debut in 2006 at age 22. With a 7-2 record, 15 starts and a 4.76 ERA, many seemed to be intrigued by the potential Lester brought to the table.Lester was a wild pitcher who had trouble with command, but everyone saw the potential therein. (Fire Brand archive: Lester is More: Enough to Keep Him in Rotation?, 6/11/06; Examining Jon Lester, 2/13/07.)

Lester’s world would shortly be rocked thereafter by the news that he had lymphoma, a form of cancer, that was discovered after he was in a car crash that left his back perpetually sore. (Fire Brand archive: Jon Lester being tested for cancer, 8/31/06.)

Lester’s treatment for lymphoma was by all accounts quick and efficient. He had to work his way back to the majors, though, and did not appear until midway through the season. On July 23, 2007, Lester made his triumphant return to the bigs by beating the Cleveland Indians, a team he would later do battle with in the ALCS. (Fire Brand archive: Lester wins in return from cancer.)

Lester finished the 2007 regular season with a 4-0 record in 11 starts (one relief appearance) and posting a 4.57 ERA. He saved his best for October, when Lester had two relief appearances in Cleveland en route to starting Game 4 of the World Series against the Colorado Rockies. Here was a 23-year old returning from cancer — and not all the way back — on the world’s biggest stage: a World Series clinching game. He delivered, tossing 5.2 innings of scoreless ball and nabbing a ring in the process. (Fire Brand archive: Sweet Victory, 10/29/07.)

All the more impressive about this is that Lester’s strength was clearly not all the way back. In 2006, Lester had sat around 90-91 mph. In 2007, his average velocity dipped to 89.9. It’s been on an upward swing ever since. 2008 saw him hit 92.1 mph and establish himself as one of the best young left-handed starters in the game. 2009 saw Lester break through with a 93.6 average velocity and strike out 10 batters per game.

Let’s backtrack for a moment here, though.

After the World Series, Lester was no longer “promising prospect” or “cancer survivor.” He was on the map. (Fire Brand archive: Lester’s age not a factor, 12/12/07.) He was on the map to the point that the Minnesota Twins wanted the 23-year old in any deal for Johan Santana. At the time, many were fixated on not giving up Jacoby Ellsbury in the deal, and Lester was more of an afterthought, like Mike Lowell in the Josh Beckett trade. (Fire Brand archive: Jon Lester is Mike Lowell, 12/5/07.) No dice.

Lester remained in Beantown, and he would break through in 2008 for us. Lester posted what remains to this day as his career low in ERA, with a 3.21 mark and 16-6 record. A major reason for his breakthrough, not surprisingly, was his command. (Fire Brand archive: The lack of strike one kills Jon Lester, 4/18/08.) As Gerry said in the link provided, “Jon Lester is a riddle wrapped in enigma.” That began to change. (Fire Brand archive: A continued obsession with Jon Lester, 4/25/08.)

ALCS Game 3 Tampa Bay Rays vs Boston Red Sox

Oh yes, did it begin to change. On May 19, 2008, Jon Lester threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals. (Fire Brand archive: Witnessing a No Hitter, 5/20/08.) Jon Lester had officially arrived. His BB/9 sank from the middle 4s to 2.8, and while his strikeout numbers didn’t take a leap forward, his velocity rose.

Lester’s 2008 season would stumble to a close as he posted two losses against the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS — this after completely shutting out the Angels twice in 14 total innings during the 2008 ALDS.

In 2009, Lester was considered by some a very darkhorse favorite for the Cy Young award. (Fire Brand archive: Lester’s case for the Cy Young, 9/22/09.) His Cy-friendly numbers took a step back with a 15-8 record and 3.41 ERA, although he proved his durability during the season by consistently going above 100 pitches. In two full years of starting in the bigs, Lester has gone over 200 innings twice. Having a durable left-hander (especially one who avoided the Verducci Effect from 2008 to 2009) is huge. (Fire Brand archive: Could Jon Lester regress? 1/26/09.)

Lester signed a five-year contract prior to the 2009 season, locking him in Boston through 2013 with a club option for 2014. Lester will make $30 million over the duration of this deal. Considering that Fangraphs valued him at $28.1 million of value this season alone, it’s safe to say that Boston got the better end of the deal. (I do think that Fangraphs’ method for player valuation is a bit inflated, but even when adjusting for that, Lester is at least an $18 million-per-year player.)

As Lester began the 2009 season, he did so with an uptick in fastball velocity while not compromising the gains in command he made. (Fire Brand archive: The Transformation of Lester, 9/10/09.) It all combined to make him a devastating pitcher, whiffing 225 and setting a team record in the process. (Fire Brand archive: Vintage Lester, 4/20/09.)

As the decade comes to a close, Lester represents perhaps Boston’s best homegrown pitcher ever. He still has a few years to go to take that crown, but the way Lester is evolving and pitching, it will take a major surprise for him not to claim said crown. Lester has progressed to the point where he has to be taken seriously as one of the elite pitchers in the game, and it would surprise me none if a Cy Young award is in his future.

All told, Lester currently holds a 42-16 record and 3.66 ERA in 91 starts and one relief appearance.

Jon Lester may be the #4 starter on the All-Aughts Team of the Decade, but odds are he’ll be the ace of the Teens Team of the Decade. Here’s looking forward to watching that happen.

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