(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season. Previously appearing on the countdown: Closer Jonathan Papelbon at No. 5, starting pitcher Josh Beckett at No. 4 and left fielder Jason Bay at No. 3.)
Jon Lester isn't going to win the Cy Young Award this season. Zack Greinke had a season of historic proportions, and Felix Hernandez was almost as good. Behind those two, Roy Halladay seemed to fade in the second half but still once again put up numbers worthy of Cy Young consideration for the fourth straight season.
The Adjusted ERA+ numbers bear that out:
1. Greinke, 203
2. Hernandez, 174
3. Halladay, 157
After that, though?
4. Lester, 139
Lester finished this season unquestionably among the elite pitchers in the major leagues. He might just be the best lefty in the game right now. His strikeout rate (9.96 per nine innings pitched) was second-best in the American League behind only Detroit's Justin Verlander. When Terry Francona chose Lester to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series instead of playoff hero Josh Beckett, it was met with shrugs everywhere because it was so easy a choice.
At risk of being a wet blanket, though, the sensational season Lester turned in doesn't ensure he'll keep dominating in the years to come. Before this season, eight lefties since Lester was born have finished a season with at least 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings -- and they haven't all turned into Randy Johnson:
1. Rick Ankiel, 2000 (194 K in 174 IP)
Everyone knows the story by now. Ankiel tore through the National League, posting an ERA+ of 134 in his rookie season with the Cardinals -- but when he got the the postseason, he suddenly no longer could pitch. He walked 11 hitters and threw nine wild pitches in his three appearances and never pitched effectively in the major leagues again.
2. Erik Bedard, 2007 (221 K in 182 IP)
In easily his best pro season, Bedard catapulted himself into the conversation about the major leagues' elite arms with a 3.16 ERA in his final season before his arbitration award was set to skyrocket. He was traded to Seattle in a deal that netted the Orioles top prospects Adam Jones, George Sherrill and Chris Tillman, shipped to a big ballpark in which he should have thrived. Instead, an issue with his shoulder landed him on the disabled list -- and he's made a total of 30 starts in the two seasons since.
That's not exactly what the Red Sox are hoping to get out of Lester.
3. Sid Fernandez, 1985 (180 K in 170 1/3 IP)
After a decent if unspectacular debut with the Mets in 1984, Fernandez finished fifth in the National League in strikeouts and led the National League in hits allowed per nine innings in 1985. He didn't let up from there, either: From 1985-89, he averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings and accumulated a 3.18 ERA -- eighth-best in the major leagues during that span.
That's not a bad expectation for Lester, but his ceiling might be higher than that.
4. Johnson, 1991 (228 K in 152 IP)
One of the greatest lefties in the history of the game, the hard-throwing Johnson didn't put it together until he started to cut down his walks. He walked 152 hitters in that 1991 season -- no one has walked that many in a season since -- and 144 in the Mariners' awful 1992 season before morphing into the pitcher who will walk into the Hall of Fame in six or seven years. (He'll have to duck his head, of course, when he walks in.)
His strikeout totals jumped at the same time: He fanned 10.9 hitters per nine innings in 1993 and 12.3 per nine innings in 1995, the season he won his first Cy Young Award. After that, he didn't strike out fewer than 12.0 per nine innings again until 2002 -- the year he won his fifth Cy Young Award.
Johnson is in his own category. There's no comparison possible.
5. Scott Kazmir, 2007 (239 K in 206 2/3 IP)
The 23-year-old Kazmir made the Mets look silly as a 23-year-old, leading the American League in strikeouts and winning 13 games for the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their final year both of being hapless and of being the Devil Rays. He was poised to enter the season as the ace of the Rays' staff but strained his elbow in spring training and missed the first month. A year later, he missed another month with a quadriceps injury -- and he had a 5.92 ERA in 20 starts when the Rays traded him to the Angels.
That's not quite what the Red Sox have in mind with Lester.
6. Mark Langston, 1986 (245 K in 239 1/3 IP)
Much like Johnson, Langston broke into the league as a strikeout pitcher but didn't put it all together until he cut down on his walks. He walked more than 4.5 hitters per nine innings in each of his first three seasons but turned into a Cy Young candidate in 1987, the first year he had fewer than 4.5 walks per nine innings. His ERA then dropped in each of the next three seasons, tumbling all the way down to 2.74 in the 1989 season that prompted the Montreal Expos to deal -- who else? -- Johnson for him. Langston then signed with the Angels as a free agent and had a 3.90 ERA over the next seven seasons.
If Lester had a similar career to the one enjoyed by Langston -- he even went 15-7 with 142 strikeouts in 1995 -- it would be tough to be disappointed.
7. Oliver Perez, 2004 (239 K in 196 IP)
Here's the big cautionary tale. The Randy Johnson comparisons began to surface after a 2004 season in which the 22-year-old fanned a National League-high 11.0 batters per nine innings. A year later, though, he fought with shoulder stiffness in the spring and never recaptured the same type of magic. He then kicked a metal laundry cart in June and broke his toe, missing two months.
The goofy thing about Perez, though, is this: The Pirates treated him with kid gloves, even going so far as to forbid him from pitching in the winter leagues in his native Mexico after he threw 196 innings in that 2004 season. The team then claimed that Perez did not follow its prescribed offseason conditioning program and therefore saw both his endurance and his mechanics evaporate. A year later, they permitted him to go pitch for his hometown team in the winter -- and, a year later, his bad ERA (5.85) got even worse (6.55).
Lester saw a huge spike in his innings pitched a year ago, and many wondered if he might not last the season if he had to endure a similar workload. He and the Red Sox, though, seem to have figured out a way to keep his mechanics in order and his arm healthy. That's where the similarities between him and Perez seem to end.
8. Johan Santana, 2004 (265 K in 228 IP)
Billy Wagner didn't mince words when talking about Lester a couple of weeks ago.
"There's not really a better lefty than him," Wagner told ESPNBoston.com. "Johan is not as overall talented as him -- not to take anything away from Johan."
Santana and Lester have quite a few similarities, in fact: Not only are the two are close to the same height and weight, but Santana was 25 years old in his breakthrough season in 2004 -- the same age Lester was this past season. Santana had come up as a relief pitcher but became a workhorse starting pitcher for the first time in 2004. He had a sub-3.00 ERA in four of his next five seasons and has a 2.86 ERA since becoming a starting pitcher full-time; even with the elbow injury that cost him the final month of his season, he remains the standard by which all lefties are measured.
That elbow injury, though, is another warning sign: Both the Red Sox and Yankees had questions about the long-term health of Santana when they discussed acquiring him from from the Minnesota Twins two years ago. Santana had thrown more than 230 innings, including the postseason, in four of his last five seasons, and the strain might finally have caught up with him. That's exactly what the Red Sox are trying to avoid with Lester.
Then again, if the Red Sox can give five more years of best-pitcher-in-baseball performances from Lester, maybe anything else is gravy.