Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sabermetrician of the Year

Jon Lester is far more than a rookie pitcher off to a lovely start for the Boston Red Sox. He's the stuff of offseason research papers by baffled numbers nuts, a reason why pitching coaches and managers have been known to drink together late at night.

Lester's brief career defies logic. He's a statistical anomaly who's in the process of becoming a statistical impossibility.

Baseball arithmetic decrees that a rookie pitcher, or any pitcher, who has walked 29 batters in 45 1/3 innings should have an ERA of 5 or higher, has gone a month without a win, and is headed for long relief or Triple A as soon as the GM gets into the office. Lack of control=disaster is a formula that predates Bill James. Also Connie Mack.

As you may have guessed, the base on balls total cited above is Lester's. His record is 5-0 with a 2.38 ERA after going eight one-hit shutout innings against the Royals last night. In a supreme display of his unique pitching pattern, Lester walked four Kansas City batters, yet the time of game was a sprint of 2 hours, 25 minutes, a figure the Sox usually reach by the bottom of the fifth at Fenway Park.

Rookie pitchers, again, nearly all pitchers, slow their pace of play to a wounded crawl after walking a man in the Sox' home park. Lester obviously did not. His composure is a joy to watch. It's a rare pitcher (Catfish Hunter was one, Jim Palmer another) who ALWAYS remembers that the man on first can only beat you if you let the man at the plate help him.

Less than 50 innings of work are not any sort of base for predicting a pitcher's future. There are three possible paths for Lester's development, and the first two are 10,000 times more likely than the last.

1. The percentages will kick in, and Lester will start surrendering some catastrophic three-run homers to punctuate his walks. Baseball's book got written for good reason.

2. Lester's control will improve, and he'll continue to succeed, but in a more conventional fashion. That'd be the best bet at this point.

I'm rooting for path number three. It'd be fabulous if Lester continued to defy baseball arithmetic for the rest of this season and beyond. Every successful player is a statistical anomaly to some extent. You can't have averages without some people performing above the norm. Baseball followers, including myself, forget that simple fact from time to time. Lester's staggering defiance of pitching's norms are a refreshing reminder.

Any pitcher who can work a 2:25 game at Fenway is on my team, not to mention those of every sports section copy desk in America.


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