|I will never get sick of this picture|
Last week, I looked at who would be the fifth starter in the rotation this year. Today, I'm going to look at the other end of the spectrum and explore who the "Ace of the staff" will be. Now, of course this is a meaningless exercise, but it's February 7th and there are only so many things to dicuss. This doesn't necessarily mean who should start Opening Day, because that's totally without meaning, and Josh Beckett looks like he really wants to in that picture. However, what I will look to project is who will be the team's stopper. When they are in the midst of a losing streak, who will step up and shut down the opposing offense to stop the skid. Last year, the answer was Josh Beckett. However, Jon Lester is the team's most consistent pitcher, and should have something to say in the battle for the team ace.
As I stated above, Josh Beckett was terrific last year. He started 30 games and finished with a 2.89 ERA and 4.1 fWAR. However, looking at his stats, he is probably due for some regression. His .245 BABIP is the obvious place to start. That number is incredibly low, and was the fourth lowest amongst all starters in baseball as well as being a career low. We should expect some serious regression back around the .300-mark in 2012. On top of that, Beckett also stranded runners on base 80% of the time. Considering he'd never had a mark above 76% prior to 2011, and he ranked 5th in baseball in that category, we should expect more of his base runners to cross the plate. However, this was all evident by his 3.57 FIP and 3.58 xFIP. These are still very good numbers. The worrisome part is that this was the first time in Beckett's career that he outperformed his FIP, which means that in most years, his ERA would have fallen close to 4. Beckett's numbers could have been even better, though, had he not faltered down the stretch. If he can perform in 2012 like he did the first four months of 2011, he will be the best pitcher on the staff.
The other candidate, Jon Lester, had a down year by his standards, but a look at his numbers suggest he should improve upon this. He was able to start over 30 games for the fourth consecutive season, but his 3.47 ERA was the highest it had ever been in that time span. His 3.83 FIP was also the highest he posted in that span, although his 3.62 xFIP suggests better times are ahead for the left-hander. The reason for the discrepancy between the two are his home run totals. His 0.94 HR/9 was his highest rate as a full-time starter, and much of this was due to his 11.4% HR/FB ratio. Since his career average ratio is 9.4%, we can expect his home run totals should regress a bit from 2011, which will result in better numbers. Lester's strike out rate fell from 9.74 K/9 in 2010 to 8.55 per nine in 2011. This drop off is somewhat discouraging, since his whiff-rate dropped for every pitch except his changeup between the last two years, and his velocity dropped across the board as well. Lester could have had some nagging injuries that contributed to this, though. As for his walks, those stayed steady at about 3.5 per 9, the same as 2010. However, before that he hovered around 2.8, and virtually all projection systems see him regressing back to those numbers.
Looking at these numbers, and going a little on a hunch, I'd guess Lester will be the most valuable pitcher on the team. This is not to say Beckett will have a bad season, because I don't think that's the case. However, the latter has much more regression on his hands, and Lester should be able to improve on some areas which hurt him last year, specifically the long ball. Both should be big contributors to the team, but the fact that Lester has been able to consistently give the team at least 30 starts and ~200 innings tips the scale in his favor a bit. That being said, don't be surprised if Josh Beckett gets the meaningless title of Opening Day starter, because, well just look at that face!