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Is Jon Lester the Cubs Real MVP?

The Cubs have had a lot to be thankful for since this championship window began in 2015. Benjamin J Denen details Lester's impact during this stretch.

Since the Cubs first entered their championship window in 2015 there has been no shortage of hardware earned on the Northside:  

2015

2016

  • Jake Arrieta—Silver Slugger
  • Kris Bryant—NL MVP
  • Jason Heyward—Gold Glove
  • Anthony Rizzo—Gold Glove, Platinum Glove, Silver Slugger

2017

  • Jason Heyward—Gold Glove

2018

  • Anthony Rizzo—Gold Glove
  • Javier Baez—Silver Slugger

2019

  • All the awards…right?!

Anthony Rizzo added a Roberto Clemente Award for his work with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation — arguably the most significant award a Cubbie has taken home. Jake Arrieta threw two no-hitters, one in 2015 and another in 2016 (as if any Cubs fan could ever forget). Even Kyle Hendricks won an ERA title in 2016.  

So how can I boldly claim that Jon Lester is the true MVP compared to the names on that list? Sure, he did come up pretty huge in the 2016 NLCS, earning an MVP award that he had to share with Javy Baez (who wasn’t really even Javy Baez yet). Heck, some would argue he hasn’t even been the best starting pitcher on the team in at least half of the four full seasons he has been with the club.

I know what you are thinking. Is this just another clickbait article? Hear me out.

A team on the cusp

When the 2014 regular season came to an end, the Cubs headed home to watch the playoffs from their couches as they had every year since 2008. Rizzo was the breakout star on a team of names that practically screamed, “Meh…”

Darwin Barney, Nate Schierholtz, and Chris Coghlan (before he did this) are not the kind of names that big-name free agents are dying to join. 

Then, Theo Epstein ousted Rick Renteria weeks after making it clear he was coming back for year two of his tenure — a move Epstein, himself, admitted was unfair, but it was hard to argue with the logic.  Joe Maddon was (and still is, in my opinion) one of the best managers in all of baseball.  Heading into the free agency frenzy in November of that year, the Cubs had a lot of promise. Rizzo had arrived. Starlin Castro was something of a young star. Baez, though he struggled mightily at the plate, showed a lot of potential. Kris Bryant, the prospect to end all prospects, was knocking on the door. All the Cubs needed was someone from the outside to buy-in.  As much as guys like Schierholtz and Coghlan had had their moments, the Cubs required a bona fide star, someone to convince the league that Clark and Addison was the place to be. 

More specifically, the Cubs needed pitching. Epstein, in pure Mad Hatter form, had gone against the grain and rebuilt the Cubs from scratch gobbling up every good hitting prospect he could get his hands on. The Epstein/Hoyer combo inherited Baez, Castro, and Willson Contreras but had made their stamp right away by acquiring Rizzo. They drafted Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. They traded for Addison Russell (which was a big deal before this came out.) The one thing they lacked was dominant starting pitching.  

Jake Arrieta was in the fold and the 2014 season showed what he was capable of becoming.  Kyle Hendricks looked good but perhaps still a little green at twenty-four. Travis Wood? Edwin Jackson (oh yeah, I went there)? They needed to enter the arms race and fast.

Enter Jon Lester

Having to cut his teeth in the wicked-bad AL East (see what I did there?), Jon Lester was a gamer from day one. Making his debut in 2006, he went 7-2 in his first fifteen starts, posting a solid 1.6 WAR.  Then, he went to the doctor complaining of back pain, and his life changed dramatically.  Jon Lester, age twenty-three, had cancer.  Having never personally battled such a terrible disease, I will not insult survivors by trying to wax poetic about his fight. Lester defeated cancer and came back just eleven months later.  

His career to that point would have made for a feel-good Hollywood movie, but his journey didn’t end there.  Lester became one of the most consistent, effective pitchers in all of baseball.

Over nine seasons in Boston (and the second-half of 2014 in Oakland), Lester put up some eye-popping numbers:

  • 110-63 (.641 win percentage)
  • 3.52 ERA
  • 3.6 FIP
  • 1,519.1 innings pitched (averaging over 200 per season from 2008 on)
  • 30.3 WAR

He was a two-time All-Star at that point in his career, but perhaps most impressive was his postseason success. By the time he had hit Free Agency in 2014, Jon Lester had established himself as an elite postseason arm. In total he won two rings with the Red Sox, but it was his performance against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series that cemented his reputation as a big game ace, allowing only a single run in 15 1/13 innings. Epstein was no longer with the Red Sox organization when Lester dominated the Cardinals in 2013, but I have little doubt that those stats and many others were fresh on his mind when he first began his pitch to Lester in the winter of 2014. Could there have been a more perfect match for the Cubs? Not that offseason, and I’d argue not in any since. 

What has he done lately?

When Jon Lester signed with the Cubs on December 14, 2014, he joined the Senior Circuit, a league with no DH and a reputation for great pitching.  The Cubs had their fair share of legends. Fergie Jenkins, Greg Maddux, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior (still too soon?), and so many more had donned the blue pinstripes. He was joining a league that in 2014 was already dominated by Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, and Cole Hamels. Max Scherzer would bring his golden arm to the NL in 2015. Pitching was king (until the baseballs “allegedly” were juiced). How has Jon Lester fit in amongst such great NL contemporaries? I’m glad you asked. 

Lester has averaged at least 180 innings in his first four full seasons in Chicago. Using that number as my baseline, I compiled a list of NL pitchers to see where Lester ranked from 2015-2018. What follows is how Jon ranked with the actual number/percentage in parenthesis.

  • IP: 3rd (770) 
  • Games Started: 2nd (128) 
  • Innings Pitched: 3rd (770) 
  • Wins: 4th (61) 
  • Complete Games: 9th (4)
  • Quality Starts: 5th (80) 
  • Strikeouts: 5th (733) 
  • Win%: 5th (.663) 
  • K%: 12th (23%)
  • WAR: 12th (12.4)  
  • FIP: 14th (3.67) 

Are all the numbers mind-blowing? No. He doesn’t have the insane WAR that Scherzer sports (34.4). Lester can’t touch Kershaw’s 2.48 FIP, and sure, he’s led the league over that period in hits allowed (690). But what Jon Lester does is show up game after big game and deal.  He has been a constant in the rotation.  Having a “low” year of 180 innings pitched in this era is remarkable.  In fact, he is one of only eighteen pitchers in all of baseball who have managed at least 180 innings over the past four seasons. (The Cubs currently have three of them in Lester, Hamels, and Jose Quintana). That said, as former contributor at The Loop Sports, Daniel Shepard, wrote back in May, Lester is so much more than an innings-eater — and the numbers above illustrate that well. 

Simply put, Jon Lester is a gamer. Go beyond the numbers, and there are just some athletes in every sport that seem to defy their own limitations when spotlight is the brightest. Take Lester’s July 27th start against the Brewers. He was coming off a missed start due to bronchitis.  It was clear that he was laboring at times, even having to ask to come out of the game when he finally ran out of gas. All he did was toss seven scoreless innings, scattering four hits and three walks to a good team that is lethal at home. That is Jon Lester in a nutshell: good, if not spectacular, clutch when his team needs him most.

He beat cancer, consistently performs at the highest levels of the game, and perhaps most significantly to Cubs fans, he beat the Cleveland Indians in Game Five in 2016. Jon Lester was that first bona fide name to take the rebuilt Chicago Cubs seriously, and he has anchored their rotation ever since. Has he always been the best? No. But has he been their most valuable? I’d argue yes, and I haven’t even touched the fact that he has transformed himself into an elite hitter!

I shudder to think what would have happened if he would have chosen, say, the San Francisco Giants instead.  Y’sylggoth could have been unleashed.

Follow Benjamin J. Denen on Twitter for more Cubs news and opinion.

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