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Cubs: Another Strong Season Comes Down to One Start for Jon Lester

Jon Lester continued his outstanding career, turning in another successful campaign for the Cubs in 2018. Daniel Shepard writes that all comes down to one outing on Tuesday. Read about it here.

Without Jon Lester, where would the Chicago Cubs be in 2018? The answer is likely not hours away from facing the Colorado Rockies in a do-or-die Wild Card Game at Wrigley Field. For much of the season, Lester has provided the Cubs with a stopper atop their starting rotation, someone who can produce a quality outing with regularity and stop two- or three-game losing streaks with one performance.

Like is expected when pitchers reach a certain age, under-performance can often be seen as a sign of declining physical ability, the result of a long and successful major league career. Just one season ago, Lester was the target of talks that suggested he may be reaching the end of his career after posting a 4.33 ERA and breaking a lengthy streak of at least 200 innings pitched (180.2 in 2017).

All signs pointed to decline, a decrease in strikeout rate from years prior and an uptick in walk rate that produced a 1.32 WHIP and a less-than-stellar .310 BABIP allowed. For perhaps the only time in his career, Lester was just an average pitcher, posting an ERA-plus of 101, just one year removed from finishing second in the National League Cy Young voting and providing valuable innings for the Cubs in the postseason.

Things change fast in the game of baseball, and thankfully for the Cubs, Lester has swung back for the better in 2018.

Just a Man Doing His Thing

Jon Lester has always been one to command the mound, not afraid to show energy when a call does not break his way or something amazing happens behind him on defense. Additionally, the 34-year-old has never been interested in this new era of saber-metrics, instead focusing on beating hitters with his best stuff 30-plus times a year.

For 13 years now, Lester has built a career around doing just that, amassing a 3.58 ERA in 253 appearances prior to joining the Cubs roster, winning two World Series titles and finishing fourth in the American League Cy Young Voting twice (2010 and 2014). That 2014 season, in which the southpaw posted a 2.46 ERA across 32 starts (219.2 innings) between the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, no doubt aided the veteran in landing his six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs prior to the 2015 campaign.

Through the fourth year of that deal, the Cubs are looking like winners, as Lester owns a 3.33 ERA over 128 starts for Chicago, helping them win that ever-important World Series title in 2016.

In what was a relative breeze, the Cubs ran away with the division two years ago, winning 103 games and locking up the title more than two weeks before the end of the regular season. This year, things have not been as easy for the Cubs, as they failed to hold off the Milwaukee Brewers, instead falling 3-1 on Monday in the divisional tiebreaker game.

Now, the Cubs find themselves in that dreaded do-or-die Wild Card Game against the Colorado Rockies, a team that won eight of its last ten games to finish the year.

Despite the Rockies’ winning ways down the stretch and their hot bats (tenth best team wRC+ since the beginning of September), this is exactly the type of game Lester excels at, especially after riding the high of yet another outstanding season.

Ups, Downs and More Ups of a Long Season

After that lackluster season mentioned above, Lester left little room for doubt that he was back during the opening half of 2018. Across 111.2 innings, the southpaw recorded the 11th best ERA (2.58) among qualified starters, besting guys like Corey Kluber and former teammate Jake Arrieta. While the ERA was rather solid, the peripheral numbers told a completely different story.

Yes, Lester held opposing hitters to a .223/.304/.363 slash line through the All-Star break, but he could not find his strikeout pitch, recording a punch out rate of just 19.1 percent and an elevated walk rate of 8.9 percent. Those numbers coupled together to produce a 4.36 FIP and even higher 4.62 xFIP for the southpaw, suggesting deep regression was at hand.

Deep regression was indeed near, as Lester followed up his NL Pitcher of the Month performance in June (1.13 ERA) with back-to-back months of marks well above 5.50 in July and August. During those months, opponents teed off on the left-hander, sporting batting averages north of .300 and slugging percentages around .550. Basically, for a two-month period, every hitter was Javier Baez when facing Lester. Unfortunately, however, hitters did not strikeout out as much as Javy as Lester posted strikeout rates of 17.4 and 17.5 percent respectively, while at the same time logging a walk rate around nine percent, two numbers not suited for success.

Just in time for a postseason tune-up, Lester has begun to once again turn toward his career norms and first half self. Those back-to-back months of less-than-stellar work has given way to the southpaw posting a 1.52 ERA across his last 29.2 innings of the season. In those five starts, Lester kept opposing hitters from posting MVP-caliber numbers against him, as they sported a .257/.306/.330 line with a wOBA of just .281. For perspective, opposing hitters logged wOBA’s of .407 and .392 in July and August respectively.

Behind Lester’s bounce back final month of the season has been his finding of a strikeout pitch. In September, the southpaw posted a strikeout rate of 24.8 percent, the highest number of any one month for Lester this season. Additionally, Lester continued to nip his walks, allowing just a 6.6 percent walk rate during the last month, a carry-over from his 6.1 percent mark in August.

Perhaps accounting for the uptick in strikeouts for Lester has been a better version of his four-seam fastball. While nothing has changed in the velocity department (his fastball still sits about 91 MPH on average), Lester got more vertical movement on the pitch in September than in any month prior. Even though it’s not a huge variance, that could spell the lack of power (.095 ISO and .381 slugging percentage) against Lester’s fastball during his final five starts of 2018.

While power is down against Lester’s fastball, whiffs are up, something that can be said about almost all of his pitches. After not posting a whiff percentage higher than 7.27 with his fastball this season, the southpaw logged a 9.21 mark in September, getting 22 whiffs on the pitch over five outings. To go along with that, Lester has also seen his change-up become a more effective pitch down the stretch, posting an 11.43 percent whiff rate on the offerings in September.

Much like the 2018 season has been for the Cubs, Lester has had periods of dominance and let-down. Right now, the big southpaw seems to be in the middle of a dominant stretch, one in which the numbers actually back him up.

Despite riding that solid run into the postseason, Lester will be tested against a strong Rockies lineup. For the season, Colorado scored the seventh most runs in baseball, producing the sixth highest ISO (.179) and the fifth best slugging percentage (.435). Even so, their team wRC+ of 87 (25th in baseball) and .322 OBP (13th in baseball) suggest this team may be centered too much around the long-ball.

Nevertheless, they know how to score runs in bunches, something the Cubs seem to have a hard time doing of late. Thankfully, Lester has been pretty good against this current Colorado lineup, posting a 23.9 percent strikeout rate and solid 6.5 percent walk rate. While Jon has allowed a .270 batting average and .444 slugging percentage, the Rockies have managed a xwOBA of just .269 in a combined 138 plate appearances against the southpaw.

It’s crazy to think that 95 wins and a season’s worth of success can be thrown away with one loss. Unfortunately, Monday’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Brewers forced the Cubs into this moment, something many people would have rather not seen. With that being said, the Cubs have their best shot to win when Lester is on the mound, so let’s see what happens tonight at Wrigley.

Go Cubs!

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Athletic 

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