(30 for 30 voice)
What if I told you that Jon Lester is actually better than last year? You probably wouldn’t believe it, right? That tends to happen when you have as ugly a start as Lester did on Tuesday against Oakland. Or when you’re as happy to beat yourself up as Lester is, because he never sugarcoats anything for you. If he thinks he sucks, he’ll tell you. Maybe in comparison to the rest of the starters of late, especially Darvish and Hendricks, he can look worse than he might actually be. But it’s true, and it’s probably even better depending on where you slot Lester realistically on the staff. That’s the thing about the Cubs staff, they don’t really have “an ace.” They don’t have a #5 either. It’s kind of shapeless. Which can be good. Sometimes bad.
I will always use any excuse to get this into a post.
Still, every peripheral on Lester is actually better than last year, and not by tiny margins either. He’s striking out more hitters, he’s walking less, he’s getting more ground-balls. In fact, his K and BB numbers look pretty much exactly like his first two years here, when he put up a 2.92 FIP in ’15 and a 2.44 ERA in ’16. That’s a good starting point.
But he’s not putting up that end-product, and it’s easy to point out why. Lester is giving up basically twice as many homers as he did then. In 2015 he gave up 16 all season. The next year it was 21. Hell, last year it was 24. This year he’s already given up 21. But Lester’s HR/FB rate (15.7%) isn’t even the highest of his career. That came in 2017, just a tenth of a point higher. So is that because he’s old and slowing down? Or because of bad luck and a baseball hopped up on goofballs? The strikeouts and walks suggest it’s more the latter than the former.
The bad luck theme continues for Lester. His BABIP is .340, a full 50 POINTS higher than last season, and 41 points higher than his career-mark. Yes, Lester is giving up way more hard-contact than ever before, at 39% which is eight percentage points higher than last year and a full 12 over his career-mark. You know who else is giving up more hard-contact? FUCKING EVERYONE ELSE. If you go by the StatCast method, his 88.3 average exit velocity is decidedly middle of the pack. He shouldn’t really be dealing with this much damage.
Lester has also been unlucky in his left-on-base percentage, which speaks to sequencing of hits. After all, you can have five hits in one inning and give up three, or give up five in three innings and surrender none. He’s benefitted from some big-time luck in the past on that, with percentages over 80% two of his seasons in Chicago (average is about 75%). This season it’s just 70%, which is on the low-side and around his ’17 mark where he also couldn’t get much to break his way.
That doesn’t mean Lester hasn’t changed his approach, and we went over some of this last season. Lester has gone to a cutter more and more this season, as his four-seam fastball has lost a full three MPH from his career norm and barely breaks 90 MPH. He only uses the four-seam 30% of the time, the lowest mark of his career by a distance. And his cutter usage is up to 34%, the highest mark also by some distance in his career.
It used to be that Lester would only use his cutter to get in on the fists of righties, like so:
This season, he’s trying to find both sides of the plate with it:
And it might just be that Lester has to do that, because the cutter doesn’t have enough juice to consistently get inside on righties, who have the ability to turn on it.
Even off the plate inside, if not low, is getting pumping bomber’d. Whereas he’s been much more controlled outside, as long as it’s not thigh-to-waist. Which basically means Lester is trying to morph into Tom Glavine. It’s a transition, to be sure. In addition. Lester has always lived at the bottom of the zone, if not lower. But as we know these days, hitters are focusing on lifting that pitch, and pitchers are trying to be up in the zone more. Lester is as well, but he did spend over 10 years doing something else. So to expect him to instantly be able to pick his spots high in the zone would be a touch unreasonable.
That doesn’t mean I’d expect Lester to mow everyone down for the last six weeks of the season, and as you saw yesterday finding the outside corner with his cutter for him is still tricky. But it really isn’t as bad as Lester himself would like you to think it’s been. If he gets any sort of market correction in the season’s last month and a half, he’ll look something like you remember.