In December 2014, the Chicago Cubs inked veteran left-hander Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million deal that would take the southpaw deep into his 30’s. While long-term contracts for 30-year-old pitchers are usually never good investments, the Cubs knew Lester would be the anchor for a World Series-caliber rotation at some point in the future.
That dream became a reality in 2016, Lester’s second year with the Cubs as the lefty posted a 2.44 ERA, finished second in the National League Cy Young voting and led the North Sider’s to their first World Series title in 108 years. Without Lester’s All-Star-caliber play during the 2016 regular season and NLCS co-MVP performance in October, it seems unlikely the Cubs would have captured that elusive World Series victory.
Lester is Carrying the Load Once Again
Two years removed from headlining a rotation that posted a 2.96 ERA and lead the majors with 81 wins, Lester finds himself carrying the Cubs’ rotation once again.
The 2018 season marked the beginning of the second half of Lester’s six-year pact, his age 34 season when pitchers naturally begin to lose some of their edge. For that reason, it seemed likely Lester would pass the torch to Kyle Hendricks or newly acquired Yu Darvish as the top-of-the-rotation ace on the North Side.
Those sentiments were not misplaced as Hendricks has begun to look more and more like an ace, posting ERA’s of 2.13 and 3.03 in 2016 and 2017 respectively. In addition, Darvish had racked up four All-Star Game appearances in his time with the Texas Rangers, prompting a $126 million pay-out by the Cubs prior to the 2018 season.
With a rotation full of aces assembled in Chicago, it seemed unlikely the Cubs would have to rely heavily on the aging Lester. Despite that, things have not worked out according to plan for the Cubs’ rotation this season.
Halfway into July and Darvish is in the middle of his second stint on the disabled list, which has helped to limit the right-hander to only eight starts and 40 innings pitched. To make matters worse, the Cubs’ 2017 trade deadline acquisition, Jose Quintana, has worked to the tune of a 4.22 ERA while offseason pick-up Tyler Chatwood leads the world with 70 walks in 79 innings. Putting the cherry on top, Hendricks owned an ERA north of 4.00 prior to his best start of the season on Monday night against the San Francisco Giants.
Overall, a rotation that seemed poised to rival the success of the 2016 version has fallen flat so far this season. Currently, the Cubs’ starters own the 11th best ERA (3.87) in the majors. While that in itself is not bad, the Cubs are sporting the second highest BB/9 (4.19) in the majors while at the same time working the seventh least innings of any starting rotation (476.2).
Through it all, however, Lester has emerged as the most reliable starter in the Cubs’ rotation despite talks of his decline after the 2017 season. After making 32 starts in each of the last three seasons, Lester has not missed one this season, making 18 and winning 11. In fact, Lester has just two losses on the season, culminating in an .846 winning percentage. Those 11 wins are coupled with a 2.45 ERA, the fifth lowest mark in the National League.
That sparkling ERA has been complied over 106.1 innings, the tenth most in the National League and tops among the Cubs’ rotation, meaning Lester is averaging a hair less than six innings per start so far this season. To put that into perspective, Chatwood is averaging just under five innings per start while Quintana sits at 5.36 innings per start.
As mentioned above, the Cubs starting rotation owns the 11th best ERA in baseball at this point in the season. Without Lester’s sub-3.00 mark, however, that number would balloon to 4.28 and fall well into the lower half of the league.
Lester Has Put the Cubs Back on Track Many Times This Season
Earlier, it was mentioned that Lester has 11 wins in 18 starts this season. Taking that one step further, the Cubs are 15-3 in those starts this season with those wins accounting for 29 percent of the club’s total victories.
In addition, Lester has shown he is able to turn things around for the Cubs. Six times Lester has taken the mound and propelled the Cubs to victory following a loss in the previous game. Of those six outings, Lester lasted at least six innings in four of them and pitched five innings in the remaining two.
To go continue the trend, Lester has taken the mound four times this season when the Cubs were in the midst of struggles. On April 5, the Cubs were suffering a two-game losing streak and had started the season 2-3. Lester put that to bed with six strong innings over the Milwaukee Brewers.
The next such outing came on May 18 following a postponement due to weather. Prior to Lester’s start that day, the Cubs had dropped three of their last four games, one to the Chicago White Sox and two at the hands of the Atlanta Braves. Once again, the southpaw put the Cubs back on track, defeating the Cincinnati Reds with six solid innings.
More recently, Lester took the mound and ended the Cubs’ five-game losing streak that stretched from June 21-June 25. In that game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lester tossed five innings, allowing four hits and two earned runs to polish off a month of June in which the left-hander posted a 1.13 ERA in 32 innings.
On paper, it’s easy to see that Lester is having an All-Star-caliber season. However, when you think about his value to the Cubs this season, it would be even easier to name Lester the Cubs’ mid-season MVP. The big left-hander has ended losing streaks and extended winning streaks that have helped propel the Cubs to their 52-37 record at this point in the season.
In what was supposed to be a “passing of the torch” moment for Lester this season, the southpaw has shown he still has what it takes to lead a postseason-bound starting rotation.
With his rotation-mates struggling, it will remain very important for Lester to continue this caliber of play for the remainder of the season. If that does not happen, the Cubs could be in real trouble when October rolls around.
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