Date: July 29, 2015
Opponent: Colorado Rockies
Location: Wrigley Field
Perhaps the Cubs should lobby the Gregorian calendar folks to change the date of Jon Lester’s next start to July 34. Why would he ever want this month to end? I mean, just at look Lester’s July numbers after Wednesday’s start against the Colorado Rockies:
But before we delve into Lester’s outstanding start and remarkable July and why that should necessitate the change of the entire Western calendar, there is the matter of thanking Mauricio Rubio for filling for Ballad No. 20. As expected, his analysis was insightful, thorough, and very well-written. Mr. Rubio will be filling in a couple more times throughout the summer, so you have that to look forward to, dad.
Now, on to Lester’s start against the Rockies, which was just another afternoon in a string of dominant performances. By Game Score, it was Lester’s second-best performance of the season, just a few points below his start in Atlanta on July 18.
Lester’s 14 strikeouts were his highest total since May of 2014. He completed eight innings for the first time since last September, a span of 23 starts. Lester set a season high in pitches (117), strikes (77), whiffs (21), whiffs on pitches inside the strikes zone (9), and his 25 called strikes were one below his season high. In span of six batters from the first inning into the third inning, Lester needed just 26 pitches to strike out six straight Rockies. His cutter and curve remained unhittable, as both pitches were throughout July.
Despite entering the game as the NL leaders in runs scored and team OPS, the Rockies seemed to be a good matchup on paper for Lester. The team has struggled both on the road (.253/.313/.347) and against left-handed pitchers (.241/.289/.393). The Rockies had also benefitted from the NL’s highest BABIP (.321) and entered ranking near the bottom of the NL in zone contact (86.1 percent).
Of course, they are still a potent lineup. Five players in Wednesday’s lineup entered with a TAv of at least .272. Lester, however, had little difficulty working through the lineup, striking out seven of nine Rockies starters.
As we noted above Lester finished July with a 0.762 WHIP, making it the the sixth month of his career with a WHIP of 1.00 or lower. The other five months—June & August 2009, May 2010, June 2011, and July 2014—came in seasons in which Lester posted the three best seasons of his career by bWARP (2009, 2010, 2014), while he was named an All-Star in the other (2011). Put simply, Lester is pitching as well as he has at any point in his career. Wednesday afternoon’s start against Colorado was perhaps his most consistently dominant as a Cub. Keep reading to learn how Lester crushed some purple.
8.0 IP, 5 H, 14 K, 0 BB, 2 ER
117 pitches (77 strikes)
Lester threw a season-high 53 four-seamers. The results were something of a mixed bag (the story of Lester’s season with the four-seamer), as he used it to pick up four of his strikeouts, but also issued his one walk and three hits (including a home run, see Trends section). In Lester’s last start before the All-Star break, we detailed how he was going to his four-seamer with less frequency in 2015, due to some poor execution and BABIP bad luck. In his four starts since the break though, Lester has increased his four-seam usage to 44.72 percent, and the results have been outstanding. Opposing batters are hitting .115/.148 /.231 with a 37 percent strikeout rate.
It is a small sample size, to be sure, but it has has to be encouraging for Lester and the Cubs. The Carlos Gonzalez home run notwithstanding, Lester was able to throw it past Rockies batters, with seven whiffs alone on the four-seamer.
Facing Nolan Arenado in the first inning, Lester got ahead 1-and-2 a curve that Arenado swung through. On the next pitch, Ross set up high and inside:
Lester missed the spot with a 93 mph four-seamer up and away:
Earlier in the season, even when Lester was at his very best in May, that fastball would often miss over the plate and end up in the bleachers. Against Arenado, though, Lester missed off the plate in an area in which Arenado has not had much success against fastballs in 2015:
Lester went to his cutter with his lowest frequency (22.2 percent) since his May 6th start at St. Louis. It was not for lack of effectiveness, though, as Lester surrendered no hits and recorded three strikeouts. Lester consistently kept the cutter off the plate. As Exhibit A of his cutter’s effectiveness, we submit his second-inning strikeout of Carlos Gonzalez:
Gonzalez entered hitting .194 against cut fastballs in 2015, and once he fell behind 0-and-2, Lester unleashed an 88 mph cutter that finished in the opposite batter’s box.
Lester threw just 17 curveballs, but still picked up three of his strikeouts with the pitch. In July, Lester went to his curve 15.3 percent of all pitches (slightly below his 15.6 percent season average), with opposing batters hitting just .042/.042/.042 with a 67 percent strikeout rate (see Pitch Breakdown section).
We will keep this week’s Trends section brief and to the point, after going long on the Pitch Breakdown section. We are going to focus solely on the positive, ladies and gentlemen.
In July, for the first month all season, Lester was effective and productive with all five of his pitches:
As you can see below, opponent’s production fell sharply from June against every pitch:
Lester has been able to use all five of his pitches to finish off opposing batters, and they are not having much more success when they put the ball in play. In fact, Lester surrendered just eight extra-base hits in the six starts. How’s that for a trend?
Score: 3-2, Cubs
Situation: Nick Hundley on first base
Batter(s): Michael McKenry
When Lester took the mound to start the eighth inning, he was on a bit of a roll. After needing 26 pitches to get through the fourth inning, he needed just 32 to get through innings five, six, and seven.
With one out, Nick Hundley singled, bringing to the plate Michael McKenry. McKenry entered hitting .213/.323/.398 in 2015, but with a career .753 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
McKenry did have three previous plate appearances against Lester, with one strike out.
After falling behind 2-and-0 and 3-and-1, Lester came back over the plate with an 88 mph cutter that McKenry fouled off. With the count full and Hundley running, Lester came back with a 92 mph sinker:
Entering the game, McKenry was slugging .632 against sinkers with two of his three home runs coming off the fastball. In this at-bat, though, he did not even take the bat off his shoulder, looking at a called strike three. The matchup with McKenry was a prime example of his monthlong ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes.
With two outs and Hundley now on second base, Lester got Charlie Blackmon to fly out to Kyle Schwarber in shallow left-field for the final out of the inning.
Lester’s extended run of excellence has been going on longer than you might have thought initially. While his July was tremendous, this stretch really began in his last three starts of June, following his shellacking in Miami and Detroit. Since June 9—the day the Tigers put up five earned runs on 11 base-runners in 4 1/3 innings pitched—Lester has been rolling, posting the following numbers over the nine starts:
|June 14 – July 31||9||60.2||2.08||0.857||28.7%||5.2%||.521||.259|
For more than the last quarter of the season, Lester has allowed fewer than a baserunner per inning while striking out well over a quarter of all batters. July has been exceptional, but Lester really began rolling after the ruins of early June.
The Rockies might not be going anywhere in 2015 (and for the foreseeable future), but their lineup is loaded with All-Stars and above-league average hitters. Lester beat, and at times thoroughly dominated, a damn good offense. He had his four-seamer, cutter, and curve working, and was able to use all three pitches to get ahead of and put away Rockies hitters.
Lester enters August having crept in to the top 10 in the NL in innings pitched (132.2), strikeout rate (25.0 percent), and FIP (2.92). His 2015 season has been written-off at various times by some short-sighted idiots with receding hairlines. However, as Brett Taylor wrote on Thursday morning, “Folks who were worried about him in April looked silly then, and they look really silly now. But, hey, we’re all Cubs fans, so bygones and all that…” The days of wallowing in White Russians at Redmond’s after a poor Lester start seem like an eternity ago. It’s too hot for one, anyways. No, it’s time to order an old-fashioned. The season’s final two months are about to get underway and Lester is leading the charge. Rejoice, North Siders.
Season to Date
6-8, 3.26 ERA, 1.168 WHIP, 25.0% K, 5.9% BB
Lead photo courtesy of Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports