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After a stretch that pointed to a rebound from a seemingly annual slow start, Jon Lester has been rocked to an 8.10 ERA over his last three affairs. With Lester, you can typically chalk such stretches up to a mere bump in the road.
A sizeable upturn in strikeouts in the 2009 season (9.96 K/9 from 6.50 the previous season) brought Lester into the elite tier. Ground-ball inducement has remained a big part of his game, but in 2012 it's coming with fewer accessories that his fantasy baseball owners desire. His K/9 has tumbled to 6.38. Despite pairing with a clean 2.93 BB/9, it warns that his 4.79 ERA might not be farfetched.
The dominant Lester has melted away thanks to the 28-year-old's decrease in cutters - a pitch that has revolutionized many a SP in recent years and is responsible for his own breakthrough - and the southpaw's newly heavy reliance on sinkers.
Those offerings aren't designed to miss bats as often as cut fastballs are. The latter helped Lester, whose velocity has been solid but not elite, work aggressively with command of the strike zone.
Easing off the pitch might be the result of a hint of erosion of four-seam velocity, notably a loss of more than 1 mph from 2010 to 2011. Its 2012 force unfortunately resembles last year's. While throwing a dropper allows Lester to trust his defense a bit more, it's also a sign that he might not be entirely comfortable with any version of his heat.
Though his walk rate in May was a stingy 1.96, the accompanying table indeed exemplifies a hurler too timid to dominate, especially on the black. Though he's getting ahead in the count more often (first-strike percentage), that can also indicate an urgency to get ahead - a la, say, Carl Pavano - because he can't flip the switch and overpower hitters. Though three of them came in one start, the five homers he coughed up last calendar station show that, too.
Not good signs for recovering dominance. The cutter isn't all that painful a pitch to throw in comparison with most breaking offerings, so from what we're privy to you can only estimate that this is an altered mindset. Health doesn't appear to be an issue.
While his new favorite offering has been effective in its own right, it's bringing him down overall. His transformation into a Trevor Cahill mold wasn't what you paid for; you bought ace-like numbers at a slightly cheaper price. You had a right to expect that considering his recent track record, but in recent years the dominance showed a decreasing foundation.
At least Lester showed some sign of improvement in his Wednesday start, despite an unsettling line, calming down after early signs of trouble. He didn't throw the cutter much, he admitted, but he felt good about his stuff, and his seven K's dictate he still has the ability to produce whiffs.
The rise in sinker employment last year was thought to be a complementary addition to a suffocating arsenal. Now it's a focus that's leaving fantasy owners with a lag in K's from a centerpiece. His trade value won't return anything close to what he would've based on preseason pricing.
Recovering his more assertive approach, if that's the only thing affecting him, would bring back the old Lester. The question of when and whether that'll happen can't be answered yet, but the trends don't point in a positive direction. Buyers with room to take a risk could look to invest at a low cost, settling for depth output while taking the risk of striking gold. The single-universe price will most likely be higher thanks to his track record.
Sellers shouldn't be quick to give up, but even with a turnaround, they probably will get something closer to mixed No. 3 SP numbers than those of a fantasy ace the rest of the way. That's acceptable, of course, as long as you readjust for making up his lacking numbers elsewhere.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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