When the Cubs signed Jon Lester in the winter of 2014 to a whopping six-year, $155 million deal, the front office made clear they had full confidence he would age well. Living up to a mega deal is no small task for a pitcher, especially when one begins a six-year contract in their age 31 season.
Lester (in)famously struggled to start his career as a Cub, pitching to the tune of a 6.23 ERA (with a .319 BAA) in April of 2015. Those concerns were quelled, however, as he ended that season with a sturdy 3.34 ERA, helping to anchor a rotation that guided the Cubs to their first postseason birth in nearly a decade. His success continued for the 2016 champion squad, boasting a 2.44 ERA with solid peripherals and a fantastic 19-5 record, finishing second in the National League Cy Young vote. Two years in and an elusive World Series title later and the contract felt fulfilled — Lester had earned his payday.
Then Came 2017
To call last season a disappointment would be generous. Lester’s numbers were among his career worst in several categories, including a 4.33 ERA, the lowest innings pitched mark since his rookie campaign, an inability to strand base runners and a susceptibility to surrendering home runs.
While he still amassed a 2.7 fWAR last season, it felt as though the shine was wearing off. Age was finally catching up to him, injuries and ineffectiveness suddenly becoming a concern for a starter that has epitomized what it means to be a ‘work horse’. Suddenly there was legitimacy to the notion that, unlike after 2016, the latter years of his contract might become less palatable and more of an albatross.
The New Jon
Goodness has 2018 been a different story. Lester ranks among league leaders in wins (nine) and ERA (2.10). While advanced metrics harp on the reality that both of these stats fail to paint a full picture of a pitcher’s value, they remain a valid contrast to his 2017 season.
Interestingly, Lester’s peripherals this year suggest he has been more lucky than good. A 4.19 FIP expresses that claim most drastically, but combined with his walk rate above career norms and a strikeout rate below career levels, it becomes legitimate to stake that claim.
As always, there’s more to the story. Lester has changed the way he pitches. What’s intriguing about this is that he’s done so not by drastically altering the usage of his arsenal — aside from an increased use of his change-up all other pitches are relatively in line with his career numbers — but by the way he uses his pitches. Responding to the ‘launch angle revolution’ Jon has pitched up in the zone more often, creating more fly balls than at any stage in his career. Buttressed by phenomenal results off of contact against his change-up and curveball (pitches that only account for 25 percent of his pitch usage) he has confounded sabermetrics, which suggest that regression is a foregone conclusion.
Advanced Metrics be Damned
To be fair, the expectation of regression given Lester’s peripherals can not be denied. The disparity between his traditional statistics with what math tells us is that he has, indeed, been lucky. And while I am of the mindset that advanced statistics shed light on what our eyes can’t tell us, I also believe wholeheartedly in what my eyes do tell me: Jon Lester is of a different breed.
Even with diminished velocity, Lester has created a new way to be elite. Despite his rather ho-hum 0.9 WAR to date this season, it’s not far-fetched to think he may represent the National League as the starter for the All-Star Game. Such a reality would’ve been unthinkable as the 2017 season closed, but for Lester, who only knows hard work and curates his legacy with grit and determination, it’s almost an expected outcome.
Sabermetrics be damned, Lester is having a career year — at age 34. Advanced metrics tell us this isn’t sustainable, but Jon is so determined, has dealt with so much in his life and has demonstrated such conviction in his craft that he’s not merely a candidate to be an exception to the rules — he’s already proven he is.
When Jon Lester is mentioned among the candidates for the Cy Young don’t be surprised — be grateful that players like him still exist.
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