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Cubs: Jon Lester’s Cutter Paves Way for Success in 2019

Off to a great start in 2019, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester is relying on his cutter more than ever. Daniel Shepard breaks down why that is paying dividends for the veteran.

Throughout the course of his career, Chicago Cubs left-hander Jon Lester has been a workhorse starting pitcher. For proof of that, look no further than the streak of 11 straight seasons in which the southpaw has made at least 31 starts, a run that signifies the durability and hard-nose nature that is Lester.

While Lester is usually good for 30-plus starts and 180-200 innings during a given season, the big lefty is not just an innings-filler. Including his All-Star Game nod last season, Lester is a five-time All-Star with four top-ten finishes in the Cy Young voting to his credit, two in the American League and two in the National League. His 180 career wins place him fourth on the active wins list, just 12 behind Zack Greinke and 30 behind Justin Verlander.

Lester’s 2,404.2 career innings are the seventh most among active pitchers while his win-loss percentage (.645 percent) is fourth best and ERA-plus (123) 10th best. The southpaw also finds himself inside the top-20 on the active list in strikeout rate (22.3 percent) and ERA (3.46).

As far as where Lester ranks among the best left-hander’s to ever pull on the uniform, the Cubs’ hurler still has a ways to go to carve his name on that mountain. Nonetheless, as things stand right now, Lester owns the 20th highest ERA-plus among southpaws (current or retired) with at least 1,000 innings pitched, posting a 123 mark, just one tally off his teammate Cole Hamels who occupies 19th on that list.

The Cubs knew exactly what they were getting when they signed Lester prior to the 2015 campaign. Lester’s six-year, $155 million contract reflects the hurler’s consistency and durability, a pact the southpaw has lived up to on the North Side.

Forget Lester’s prowess in the postseason for a second. Just in the regular season as a member of the Cubs, Lester owns a 3.23 ERA and has won 64 of his 135 starts for a .667 winning percentage. Additionally, Lester has added four complete games to his ever-growing resume with the Cubs, helping him to post a 128 park adjusted ERA (28 percent above league average) since pulling on his new uniform. That mark suggests Lester has been largely pitching an at All-Star-caliber level since signing his contract with Chicago, as two of his five aforementioned All-Star Game appearances have been with the Cubs.

If Lester never pitched another game for the Cubs, his contract will have been a victory for Theo Epstein and the front office. His three wins and 2.02 ERA during the 2016 postseason helped the Cubs capture their first World Series title in over 100 years while Lester’s veteran presence and competitive attitude has had an unquantifiable impact on the members of the pitching staff.

For that reason, Lester will likely go down as one of the best free agent signings by the Cubs. Luckily for Chicago, however, Lester still has one more season on his contract after 2019 with a team option for the 2021 campaign. If that is picked up, it will take the southpaw into his age 37 season, rare air for major league starting pitchers.

Toward the end of his contract and likely his career, however, Lester is proving all the projection systems and analytical “geeks” wrong with his outstanding performances every five days. This season, while still early, has been the best example of Lester’s stubbornness against regression. In 2018, the veteran was supposed to take a step back and finally hand the torch to one of his rotation mates. Instead, minus a rough patch around the All-Star break, Lester dazzled, turning in a 3.32 ERA across better than 180 innings for a 125 ERA-plus (25 percent better than league average).

Despite the solid ERA, Lester’s peripheral numbers did slide in the wrong directions, suggesting the southpaw may have benefited from luck and a good defense in 2018. Nevertheless, Lester has so far backed up his strong 2018 campaign with a similarly strong 2019 season. Seven starts in, Lester is the league’s ERA leader and is pitching like it’s 2010 again.

While some numbers are ugly for the left-hander, Lester may be able to pin much of his early success on his cut-fastball, a pitch that has kept the hurler afloat in rough waters this season, doing the same for the Cubs who struggled out of the gate.

Lester’s Cutter Has Carried the Left-Hander

Lester’s cut-fastball has always been an important pitch for the southpaw. Thrown around 15-20 percent during the early portions of Lester’s career, the cutter was used to work off his 92-94 MPH fastball, over-hand curve-ball and the occasional change-up. While that remains the case, Lester has slowly increased his usage of the offering as his four-seam fastball continues to show signs of decline.

Early this season, Lester’s four-seamer is averaging 90 MPH, a number that would represent four straight years of velocity decline for the big left-hander. Having averaged 92.1 MPH with his fastball during the 2016 season, Lester featured the pitch 58.6 percent of the time, turning to his cutter only 23.2 percent of the time. Each season since, however, Lester has continued losing ticks on his heater, equaling decreases in usage on the pitch. Currently, Lester is throwing his four-seam fastball only 42.6 percent of the time while his cutter has risen to a career-high 34.9 percent usage rate, per fangraphs.com.

It’s important to note that, just like his four-seamer, Lester’s cutter has also lost some of its jump. This season, the offering has averaged 87.2 MPH, down almost 1.5 MPH from the veteran’s career average. Never mind the velocity on his cutter, though, because Lester is getting some career-best results on the pitch this season.

Lester’s increased usage of his cutter has transpired, as stated above, because of his declining four-seamer, but consider this. In 2019, opposing hitters are registering a hard hit rate of 44.2 percent on Lester four-seam fastballs, a number that has been paired with a lackluster 16.3 percent swing-and-miss percentage. Those numbers, along with his 14 percent barrel rate on the offering, are among the worst, if not the worst, figures Lester has posted with the pitch during his career, no doubt a driving force in his decision to throw more cutters.

While the barrel rate on Lester’s cutter looks very similar to that of his four-seamer (11.8 percent), the left-hander is garnering a 50 percent ground ball rate on the offering, helping to mitigate any ball struck with pace. Additionally, Lester has vastly improved his hard contact rate on his cutter from season to season. Last year, the number sat at 31.3 percent, a mark that has dropped to 23.5 percent through the early portions of this campaign.

Part of that decline can be attributed to a 20.6 percent whiff rate on Lester’s cutter, while hitters are swinging and missing at 18.7 percent of the cut-fastballs the southpaw throws in the strike zone. That number is up more than 2.5 percent from last season and nearly seven percentage points since the 2016 campaign.

As you might be able to tell from the above numbers, hitters are not finding much success against Lester’s cutter this season. In more traditional numbers, batters are averaging .132 on the offering in 2019, dropping from .271 last season and .244 the season prior to that. The opposing batter’s slugging percentage of .283 is the lowest mark compiled by Lester since on the pitch since 2011 while their .201 wOBA would set a new career-best for the Cubs hurler if it holds.

Currently, all signs point to those marks holding as opposing batter’s expected statistics are not much better from their real ones. Batters have an expected batting average of only .197 on Lester’s cutter this season, with a slightly higher expected slugging of .349 and xwOBA of .256. While the expected slugging may be a bit higher than one would like, Lester has issued four extra base hits of the seven allowed on the offering this season. Still, batters are 7-for-53 against Lester’s cutter and still have a long ways to go to match the 55 hits the southpaw gave up on the pitch in 2018.

To Right-Handed Batters

For Lester, perhaps his best use of the cut-fastball is in on the hands of a right-handed batter. If you have watched any of Lester’s seven starts this season, or really any outing by the left-hander, you will no doubt have seen something similar to the clip below.

**credit to baseballsavant.com.

On a 3-2 count to Mitch Haniger, Lester shows a willingness to expand the strike zone, getting an 87 MPH cutter under the swing path of the batter, resulting in a punch out.

In addition to that, however, Lester can and often does work the outside edge of the strike zone with his cutter. This time with count leverage in a 1-2 situation, Lester uses the offering to freeze Tyler Flowers with a cutter that may have been just off the plate. Nevertheless, Lester is able to work out there with consistency, often buying a handful of those calls throughout the course of a game.

**credit to baseballsavant.com.

That first video helps to represent the 16.7 percent whiff rate Lester has garnered on cutters against right-handed batters thus far in 2019. While down compared to last season and the year before, the southpaw’s 35.7 percent strikeout rate on the offering would be Lester’s highest since 2011 when he posted a 36.1 percent mark. Coupled with that is Lester’s tiny walk rate on the pitch, both in general and to righties.

Overall, that number sits at 5.4 percent, but to right-handed batters, it dips to a tiny 4.8 percent. In conjunction with those figures, opposing right-handed hitters are averaging just .125 on the pitch this season, with a slugging percentage of .275 and a wOBA of .192.

As discussed above, Lester has allowed two home runs off his cutter this season, with both coming against righties. Those, however, make up the extent of the extra base hits allowed to right-handed batters against his cutter as hitters have only five hits (three singles, two home runs) in 40 at-bats against the pitch.

Since Statcast began tracking expected statistics in 2015, Lester has posted some pretty ugly numbers with his cutter when facing right-handed hitters. Last season, righties amassed a xBA of .250 off the cutter, adding a .386 xSLG. This season, those numbers have dropped to .153 and .265 respectively, representing the lowest such numbers of Lester’s career (since 2015).

To Left-Handed Batters

Against same-sided batters, Lester has featured his cutter 32.4 percent of the time, a number that is down from the 35.2 percent usage rate when he opposes right-handed batters.

Nevertheless, Lester has found similar success, holding opposing lefties to a .154 batting average on the offering this season. That works out to just two hits in 13 at-bats, both of which resulted in doubles for the opposition. Those doubles, in just nine batted ball events for lefties against Lester’s cutter, mean some gaudy expected figures even when the actually numbers look pretty solid.

Currently, left-handed batters are slugging .308 on Lester’s cutter in 2019, a mark that is down from .429 last season. Pair that with a .227 wOBA and things look very similar to how right-handed batters fare against the cutter from Lester. Unfortunately, the expected figures suggest Lester is due for regression on the offering to lefty batters.

Opposing batters own an expected slugging percentage of .608 on cutters this season, while at the same time posting a .421 xwOBA, both of which would be career highs (since 2015) if they hold over another 20-plus starts.

Much of those lofty numbers have to do with the increased exit velocity allowed to left-handed batters. Right now, southpaw batters have an average exit velocity of 88.4 MPH on Lester’s cutter. Compare that to the 81.3 MPH mark he has held right-handed batters to and the difference becomes clear.

Even with the increased pace on balls put into play, Lester is racking up a great deal of swing-and-miss on his cutters to lefty batters. His 31 percent whiff rate is the second highest of Lester’s career and highest since 2009 while his 28.6 percent strikeout rate is an almost eight percent increase from ’18 to ’19.

Just like he does to right-handed batters, Lester loves to work his cutter away from lefties. In addition, the numbers suggest Lester throws his cutter in the strike zone more to left-handed batters than righties. This season, the southpaw has an in zone percentage of 46.7 percent to right-handed batters, a number that ticks up to 57.9 percent when facing left-handed batters.

Because of that, Lester is garnering a 30.4 percent in zone swing-and-miss rate to lefties this season, a figure that drops to just 13.5 percent when a righy is in the box.

Below is a perfect example of what Lester likes to do with his cutter against left-handed batters.

**credit to baseballsavant.com.

While the ball dipped just below the strike zone, it was enough to elicit a swing-and-miss from one of the more dangerous power hitters in baseball on a full count. Throwing a fastball with movement while maintaining such precision on the offering is a driving force in Lester’s 7.1 percent walk rate to lefties on his cutter and his overall 5.1 mark for the season.

Lester Looks to Keep Rolling

Right now, Lester is doing just about everything right on the mound. Since making his return from the IL with a tight left hamstring on April 25, the southpaw has yielded just one earned run over 24.2 innings spanning four starts. In those outings, Lester has walked a combined two batters while striking out 25.

Across that span, the lefty has seen his ERA drop from 2.37 to 1.16, a mark good enough to led all of major league baseball. With a 24.7 percent strikeout rate and aforementioned 5.1 percent walk rate, Lester’s FIP is in much better shape (2.72) compared to a season ago (4.39) while his 90.2 percent left-on-base percentage would be the highest of his career.

Just about the only thing plaguing Lester at this point is his hard contact rate. Currently sitting at 40.5 percent, that mark would also represent a career-high for Lester if it holds throughout the season. That, combined with his 15.3 percent soft contact rate, has some people seeing regression in the southpaw.

With that in mind, we all know Lester is more than capable of pitching through what many call “regression.” He did it last year and ended up making a trip to our nation’s capital, representing the Cubs in the All-Star Game. Not every pitcher can post iffy rate statistics and continue to pitch at a high level, but Jon Lester can. Last season was the first time since 2013 that Lester posted a strikeout rate lower than 20 percent. This season, that mark has returned to normal, but his hard contact has shot up over 12 percent from what it was two years ago.

Even so, Lester is still inducing a healthy amount of ground balls (45 percent) something he was not doing enough in 2018. Right now, Lester is healthy and locked into a groove that has him off to one of the best starts of his career. While people argue over when he will finally hit “the wall,” Lester will continue using his cutter to prove those people wrong and pitch the Cubs into the postseason.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Loop Sports 

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