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Cubs: Jon Lester’s Struggles Have Finally Arrived

Cubs' ace Jon Lester defied his peripheral numbers for much of the first half. Daniel Shepard writes that has not been the case so far in the second half.

Through the first half of the 2018 season, Chicago Cubs’ southpaw Jon Lester was one of the best starting pitchers in the game. The veteran’s 2.58 ERA ranked 11th in major league baseball ahead of names like Corey Kluber, Patrick Corbin and his old rotation-mate Jake Arrieta.

To go along with his sparkling ERA, Lester finished the first half tied for the second most wins in the league with 12, while at the same time recording the fourth best left-on-base percentage in the majors with an 83.6 percent mark.

Lester’s stellar play helped a Cubs’ rotation stay afloat in a first half that saw Yu Darvish record just 40 innings of work and the other members largely underperform. Of the Cubs’ 55 first half wins, 16 of them came when Lester was on the mound, including a stretch of nine straight victories that spanned the entire month of June and mid-way through July. In that same stretch, Lester posted a 1.13 ERA across 32 June innings, lasting seven innings in three of his five starts that month.

For his efforts, Lester was awarded the National League Player of the Month for June while putting the finishing touches on what would become an All-Star Game worthy start to the season.

Numbers Don’t Lie

Despite Lester’s outstanding first part of the 2018 campaign, his more advanced numbers suggested he would not keep pace. Across 111.2 innings prior to the All-Star break, the left-hander logged a strikeout rate of just 19.1 percent, a number that was tied for the 22nd lowest in the majors among qualified starting pitchers. To go along with that, Lester posted a top-25 walk rate at 8.9 percent, creating a bad combination of not enough strikeouts and too many walks in the first half.

Those extra base runners led to a first half WHIP of 1.19 for Lester. Even so, Lester was able to limit those runners from scoring by recording the aforementioned fourth best left-on-base percentage in the league. Lester also limited runs by allowing opposing batters to slash just .223/.304/.363 in the first half of play.

A deeper look into the numbers continue to suggest Lester’s first half was a fluke. Prior to the All-Star break, the southpaw allowed a hard hit rate of 33.2 percent which would have been the highest of his career projected to a full season. In addition, Lester yielded a fly ball rate of 37.6 percent in the first half, solidly above his career mark of 33.5 percent while at the same time getting ground balls at a 38.2 percent clip, way under his career number of 46.4 percent.

These numbers, with the harder hit balls and more balls in play and in the air, left Lester with a sky-high FIP in the first half. After posting an ERA south of three, the left-hander’s first half FIP sat at 4.36 while his xFIP was even higher at 4.62. The difference of negative-1.78 runs between Lester’s ERA and FIP ranked first in the majors, meaning the veteran was the best at out-pitching his peripheral numbers in the first half.

That, however, has come to a very quick end during the second half of the season. Just four starts into the latter portion of the season and the Cubs have already lost three games started by Lester. For perspective, Lester made 10 starts in the first half before the Cubs lost three of his outings. While Lester pitched well in those three first half losses, lasting seven innings in two of them, the same cannot be said for these second half contests.

On July 20, Lester’s first half after the All-Star break, the southpaw pitched just three innings, allowing eight earned runs on seven hits while walking five and issuing two home runs.

In his last two outings, Lester has failed to record a quality start after logging one on July 25 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Lester’s ERA following six innings of one-run ball was 3.06, a number that has ballooned over his last two starts.

Across just 10 total innings, Lester has allowed nine earned runs on 15 hits while recording just four strikeouts and allowing three home runs. These three poor outings sandwiched around one solid start has proven what many people were predicting prior to the All-Star Game, that Lester was due for regression in the second half.

Looking at the numbers mentioned above, it would not be a stretch to agree with those people. With that being said, Lester’s regression has been drastic through four second half starts and could spell bad times for the Cubs.

Across 19 innings, Lester’s once sparkling ERA sits at 8.53 and 3.44 for the season. That ERA has largely been driven by opponents slashing .329/.414/.697 off Lester in the second half. To make matters worse, the left-hander has already allowed six home runs and 18 earned runs after giving up 13 long balls and 32 earned runs across the entirety of the first half.

A look at the advanced numbers for Lester’s poor second half start does not tell an encouraging story. An already low strikeout rate has fallen even further to 13.5 percent while his walk rate sits at 11.2 percent. In addition, Lester’s once sold left-on-base percentage has dipped to 65.2 percent thus far in the second half, while his 7.58 FIP (lower than his second half ERA) suggests the southpaw may have fallen victim to bad luck.

After getting knocked around in his recent outings, one would expect to see an increase in Lester’s hard contact percentage. That is exactly what is happening, albeit a small increase after his already inflated first half number blew away anything Lester had previously posted.

Currently, the left-hander’s hard hit rate sits at 35.8 percent while his fly ball (42.2 percent) and ground ball rates (34.4 percent) continue in the wrong directions.

The Cubs Need Lester to Rebound

With Darvish entering his third month on the DL, a stellar starting rotation at the beginning of the year has slipped into one of the worst in the second half. Right now, the Cubs’ starting staff own the fifth highest post-All-Star break ERA in the majors at 5.58. The teams they trail (Padres, Orioles, Angels and Reds) are all solidly out of contention while the Cubs continue to battle for a fourth straight postseason birth.

Much of the starting rotation’s struggles can be traced back to Lester, but Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks are each sporting second half ERA’s north of 4.50.

This inconsistent play is what prompted the Cubs to trade for Cole Hamels at the end of July. While the sample size is too small right now, just one start, it looks like Hamels could be the shot in the arm that Quintana was last season.

Cubs’ brass and fans alike are hoping that will be the case as the 2018 season enters the latter portions of the regularly scheduled games. If the Cubs’ rotation can get back on track in the near future, that group of guys has the ability to lead the club back to the postseason. On the flip side, the starters have the ability to ruin this season with their poor play and wreck what used to be a promising year.

Over the next month and a half, it will be interesting to see which direction the starting rotation goes. Hopefully, Lester and others can find a groove and lead this team deep into October once again.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

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