Friday, March 22, 2013
Lester looks lined up for Opening Day
By Gordon Edes
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jon Lester insists that his calendar remains open on April 1.
"I know we're in New York," he says.
Lester says there have been no texts, no phone calls, no conversations, no white smoke billowing from the Sox clubhouse at the Jet informing him that he has an appointment in the Bronx to pitch against the New York Yankees that day. He swears it with a face straighter than Stephen Colbert talking about Paul Ryan.
Lester has started the last two Opening Days for the Red Sox. No Sox pitcher has started as many as three in a row since Pedro Martinez was handed the ball seven straight times in the opener (1998-2004). The last Sox lefty to throw three openers in a row was Mel Parnell, and that was nearly 60 years ago (1952-54).
Jon Lester has impressed thus far in spring training, and it's all but official he'll make his third straight Opening Day start.
Lester is pitching on a five-day schedule, meaning his final action in camp comes Wednesday in what is expected to be an abbreviated tune-up here against the Miami Marlins. Even arithmetically challenged sportswriters, though they may have to employ the digits on their hand, can figure out that five days after that is April 1.
But to get either manager John Farrell or Lester to admit the lefty will be pitching that day is a fool's errand.
"You guys know anything?" Lester said after throwing 100 pitches over 5 1/3 innings in a minor league game here Friday afternoon. "I have not been told anything. I'm looking to Wednesday, go from there. I'm sure you'll find out before I do what's going on."
Is it possible that Lester is withholding information? This is a man, after all, who prior to the 2011 season received a text message over the winter while in a deer stand from then-manager Terry Francona, informing him that he would pitch the opener. He then professed ignorance until Francona made it official on St. Patrick's Day.
"I had to on that one," Lester said. "Tito told me on that one. I honestly haven't heard anything. I just know my schedule. That's it."
No one has yet to unearth the documentation that would prove the Sox of willful deceit, even as the manager's lips remain sealed.
"I think he's just messing with you all," Lester said. "I think he just doesn't want to tell anybody."
And until Farrell does, Lester isn't talking, either.
So for now, the Sox starter on April 1 is someone you all know and love: The ubiquitous TBA.
In case it should be Lester, we can tell you that he made it through the first four innings Friday on one single while striking out five. He was touched up for a couple of runs in the fifth, and came out with one out in the sixth after his 100th pitch. The line: 4 H, 2 ER, 1 B, 7 K's. That's on top of the 0.90 ERA he has from his five starts in big league exhibitions.
The most positive development of his spring, he said, has been his ability to live at the bottom of the strike zone with his fastball.
"That's the biggest thing for any pitcher," he said. "Regardless if it's Jamie Moyer or Randy Johnson, you've got to have fastball command to get them to swing at your other pitches.
"The next step below that is how pleased I've been with my curveball, and the adjustments with that. I've been able to throw it for strikes. I've been able to throw it for balls and get swings. That's another big pitch for me, to get people off the cutter."
Lester professes that he doesn't need a spike in his strikeout rate, which last season was down to 7.3 per nine innings, from a peak of 10.0 in 2009. As a rule, FanGraphs.com notes, 10 and above is considered excellent, above average is 7.5, and average is 7.1, though that can vary a bit from year to year. So when that number declines, the stat guys nod knowingly.
"I don't know, tell them to swing more, swing and miss more," Lester said when asked how he can reverse the trend. "Really, there are times it's appropriate to go after strikeouts, but I don't care if I strike out one guy this year as long as I'm getting ground balls and getting outs. Strikeouts for me are just one of those stats that look cool.
"It's fun to strike out guys, but it's also a lot of pitches. I had to throw a lot more pitches [Friday] than last time because I struck guys out, went deeper into counts, had more foul balls. I'd rather have them hit ground balls to the infield and let them have some fun and go nine. That would be a lot easier."
But what about the stat analysts wringing their hands, some of whom occupy offices at 4 Yawkey Way?
"Why is that?" Lester said. "I don't get that. Just because you punch a lot of guys out doesn't mean you're a good pitcher."
Well, it doesn't hurt. Here are the 10 active leaders in K per 9 rate, minimum 1,000 innings:
"You can have good seasons without a lot of strikeouts," Lester said. "Like in '08, I didn't strike a lot of guys out, but I had a good season. I won some games, I was able to have some contact, and I still threw 200 innings."
All of which is true. In 2008, his first full season in the big leagues, Lester's K's per 9 was 6.5, the lowest of his career, but he still went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA.
"I feel like strikeouts, sometimes they put too much emphasis on them to determine how a pitcher is like," he said. "It's fun to strike out a guy. It's awesome. But at the same time, I'd rather go nine innings and strike out two guys or no guys than go five innings and strike out 10. It saves your bullpen, it saves all that stuff."