Over at Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci posted today his annual list of at-risk young pitchers, and right there at #1 is tonight's Sox starter, Jon Lester.
For those of you unfamiliar Verducci's "at-risk" list, it's based on a pretty basic theory: pitchers who are 25 and under are highly susceptible to injury the year after they see a workload increase of 30 innings or more. Obviously, many clubs have been operating under the same assumption for years now, keeping young arms on tight innings restrictions.
But Verducci's particular equation on this has been scarily accurate: he went 6 for 7 with injury predictions in 2008 (think Ian Kennedy, Dustin McGowan, and Fausto Carmona). In today's column, Verducci summarizes his track record: "Over the previous three years I red-flagged a total of 24 young pitchers at the start of those seasons. Of those 24 at-risk pitchers, 16 were hurt in that same season. Only one of the 24 pitchers managed to stay healthy and lower his ERA: Ubaldo Jimenez, of Colorado, a guy I said would be less at risk because of his powerful body type."
This year he red flags ten pitchers (listed in order of their workload increase): Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley, Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, Dana Eveland, Mike Pelfrey, John Danks, Jair Jurjjens, and Jon Niese.
Verducci does note of Lester that he "has age (he turned 25 in January) and size (6-2, 200) on his side," and expresses greater concerns over slighter, younger guys like Lincecum. He also notes that John Farrell appears to be on top of the situation and does not seem particularly concerned about Lester's injury-risk this year.
Still, Lester's workload increase in 2008 was dramatic - up 83.1 innings over the previous year. The Sox already seem to see Lester as their long-term workhorse, but this could be the year where they find out whether that goal is realistic.
Lester makes his first start of the season tonight against the Rays. There are nerves enough surrounding this start without Verducci's pesky historical analysis, but it's one more plotline to keep in mind. It could be one of the most important of the season.