It was not too long ago that many fans of the Chicago Cubs were worried Jon Lester was over the hill. That criticism was spurred by Lester’s lack-luster 2017 season in which the left-hander failed to reach 200 innings for the first time since 2011 while posting an ERA north of 4.00.
Last season also saw him allow the highest BABIP (.310) and opponent batting average (.256) since 2012 while amassing the lowest left on base percentage (68.7%) since the same campaign.
The type of season Lester had in 2017 would be concerning for any pitcher, let alone one on the wrong side of 30 who is right in the middle of a six-year, $155 million contract. Those two factors plus the notion that the Cubs want to make another run at the World Series in 2018, make it all the more important that Lester bounces back this season.
So far, he is doing just that.
In his first start of the 2018 campaign, Lester did little to quell the fears of Cubs’ fans. The 34-year-old completed just 3 1/3 innings against the Miami Marlins, allowing four runs (three earned) on seven hits while walking three batters and striking out two. With that effort, he posted a game score of 31, the lowest of the season thus far for the left-hander.
As the calendar flipped to April, Lester rounded into form, once again becoming the pitcher fans are accustomed to seeing. In five starts, he logged 29 2/3 innings and allowed 7 earned runs on 21 hits while striking out 25 and walking 10. Those seven earned runs came in just two starts, with three of them surrendered on April 25 as part of seven strong innings.
After posting a 2.12 ERA in April, he is showing no signs of slowing down in May. Following his 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the Chicago White Sox on Saturday, Lester lowered his season ERA to 2.66 while keeping his monthly ERA even lower, at 2.45.
Looking deeper into the numbers, it’s easy to see some regression out of the veteran. He will likely never compile a season like 2016 again as he continues to put miles on an arm that has logged over 2,000 big league innings. However, Lester can continue to be a top of the rotation starting pitcher.
In 44 innings this season, he owns a K/9 of 7.36 and a BB/9 of 4.06. That, combined with his 1.32 WHIP suggests Lester is allowing more base runners than in previous seasons. Despite the traffic, the lefty is preventing many of them from scoring as his LOB% is back above his career average (74.9%) and currently sits at 81.5%. In addition, eLester has yielded a .230 batting average to opposing hitters while amassing a BABIP of .266.
Both of those numbers are way down from a year ago and help explain why Lester is finding success even though he is allowing a few more batters to reach.
Before joining the Cubs at the beginning of the 2015 season, Lester had already established himself as a workhorse pitcher. As one of the few remaining arms to carry that distinction, he logged 200 or more innings in a season eight times in his career. That, along with the fact that Lester has made at least 30 starts every year dating back to 2008, is a driving force behind the huge contract the Cubs shelled out to get the left-hander three years ago.
Over the years, Lester has been able to make a living by using primarily a fastball, sinker, cutter and curveball mix. Even though he throws his four-seam fastball more so than any of his other pitches, around 40% of the time for his career, the lefty gets far more whiffs with his secondary offerings, especially in 2018. As of right now, Lester is throwing his four-seam fastball about 46% of the time and getting whiffs just six percent of the time. To put that into perspective, Lester’s whiff percentage on his sinker is 13.33, 16.44 on his change-up, 19.35 on his curve and 9.34 on his cutter.
In addition, opposing hitters are not faring well against Lester’s change-up and curveball as they are managing batting averages of just .087 and .059 respectively. That, combined with the fact that batters are not slugging against those pitches either, is why Lester is throwing his change-up almost ten percent of the time, the highest percentage since 2013 while maintaining a healthy 12% on his bender.
Lester has never had a particularly big fastball, topping out at 94 MPH back in 2009. With that being said, he averaged 93.11 MPH on his fastball in 2016, a number that is now down to 91.49 MPH after registering at 91.78 MPH last season. Regardless, the 34-year-old is finding success with his secondary pitches at just the right time despite the fastball velocity deterioration the last two seasons.
Not quite ready to pass the torch
The Cubs rotation has been one of the best in baseball the last few seasons. Much of that can be contributed to Lester, but even with his struggles last season, Chicago’s starters logged the seventh best ERA in baseball.
That proves the Cubs’ rotation is strong even when Lester is not performing at his best. After the additions of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, one could make a case that the Cubs’ rotation is the best it’s ever been. While the two newbies may be off to a rocky start, Kyle Hendricks is looking more and more like an ace every day.
Despite Hendricks’ ascension, Lester is not ready to hand over the reigns of the rotation just yet. While it may have looked like the veteran ran out of gas last season, Lester’s first eight starts this season have put many concerns about the left-hander to bed.
Feature Photo Credit: @Cubs on Twitter