Every start is worth another million, maybe more. Jon Lester doesn't think this way, because his parents, and the reality of beating cancer at 22 years old, taught him to savor the moment he's living and not the ones ahead. And yet baseball operates in a universe parallel to the one playing out in the standings column. It is forever stealing glances at crystal balls.

If the Oakland A's maximize their rotation – and they didn't trade for Lester to baby him down the stretch – he's got 10 regular-season starts left, 10 he hopes fare as well as his first 24 this season, 10 in which the goal is to lead the A's to the American League West crown. Ten, perhaps most important, for his arm to stay healthy like it has for all of his 30 years.

Because it's been a long, long time since a starting pitcher's fortunes have broken good in a walk year like Jon Lester's. He turned in his typical ho-hum performance Tuesday night, snapping the eight-game winning streak of baseball's hottest team, the Kansas City Royals, while striking out nine over six innings. Just another outing to add to a tableau that grows prettier by the start and places him not in elite company but atop it.

The Los Angeles Dodgers lavished $147 million on Zack Greinke after a season in which he put up a 3.48 ERA. Lester's is nearly a run lower. The Phillies gave Cliff Lee a $24 million-a-year deal when his Fielding Independent Pitching – a metric that predicts future performance as well as any using strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed – led the league. Lester's this year is even better. His ERA and FIP top CC Sabathia's in the wake of his remarkable stretch run with Milwaukee in 2008, destroy those of Barry Zito before his $126 million contract and best all the second-tier pitchers who got paid: Anibal Sanchez and John Lackey and A.J. Burnett and C.J. Wilson. Even the pitcher expected to fetch more in free agency than Lester, Detroit ace and reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, trails Lester in ERA and FIP.

To find a starting pitcher better than Lester heading into free agency takes a trip one generation into the way-back machine. In 1998, Kevin Brown booked a 2.38 ERA and a 2.23 FIP, and while Randy Johnson's were both higher than Lester's, he threw 244 1/3 innings – Lester is on pace for 233 1/3 – struck out 329, dominated after a deadline deal to Houston and ended up signing a four-year deal with Arizona during which he won the Cy Young all four seasons.

Lester finds himself in unique company because of a bet he made. In this baseball world of elbow injuries and uncertainty and inconsistency, Lester chose himself. He scoffed at the Boston Red Sox's spring training offer of a four-year, $70 million deal and believed his arm would hold up for another 34 starts, another ace's workload that chased 248 taxing innings during Boston's World Series run last season. Next to no pitchers make that gamble, not even the best. The three biggest pitching contracts ever – Clayton Kershaw for $215 million, Justin Verlander for $180 million, Felix Hernandez for $175 million, all spread over seven years – were extensions.