205.0 IP, 3.34 ERA, 3.89 DRA, 25.0% K%, 5.7 BB%
Year in Review
On the morning of May 6th, the Chicago Cubs were not reeling, but they were in a funk. They were losers of four consecutive games, including the first two of a four-game set in St. Louis. It was just the first week of May, but the Cubs trailed the Cardinals by 6.5 games in the NL Central. To make matters worse, Joe Maddon had been forced to use his bullpen for a combined 13 innings during the four-game losing streak. The time for panic had not yet arrived, but as an organization still unsure if 2015 was the season they transitioned from “next year” to contender, the Cubs were in definite need of a turning point.
Enter Jon Lester, fresh off a winless and sluggish April. Against the Cardinals that night, while he was not at his sharpest (seven hits and two walks), Lester battled through seven innings and 107 pitches, allowing four runs, but just one earned. The Cubs won 6-5, and would proceed to win seven of their next 10 games.
By Game Score (57), it was only his fifth-best start of May, but on a stifling and humid St. Louis evening, the Cubs gave Lester the ball, and dammit, he was not going to let them lose. Here, encapsulated perfectly in one early season game, was why the Cubs gave Lester the richest contract in team history. They were looking for the big-game pitcher, who every five days would get his team into (or through) the seventh inning, allow just over a baserunner per inning, and pick up six or seven strikeouts.
That is the Lester the Cubs and their fans expected in 2015, and, for the majority of the season, that is the Lester they got. His 2015 numbers, while perhaps a notch below his 2014, were still outstanding, and ranked among the league’s best:
|2014 (AL rank)||Category||2015 (NL rank)|
|219.2 (5th)||Innings Pitched||205.0 (9th)|
|1.070 (7th)||WHIP||1.122 (9th)|
|2.46 (4th)||ERA||3.34 (15th)|
|2.83 (7th)||FIP||2.95 (8th)|
|3.38 (10th)||DRA||3.89 (16th)|
|24.9% (6th)||K%||25.0% (9th)|
|5.4% (12th)||BB%||5.7% (12th)|
|45.0% (25th)||GB%||51.0% (17th)|
In FIP and WHIP, Lester ranked in basically the same position, and his overall strikeout rate increased. Lester put up the second best FIP, WHIP, and walk rate of his career, fourth best ERA, and fifth best DRA.
Lester’s average start decreased by 0.46 innings from 2014, but that is due heavily to Joe Maddon, on five occasions, pulling Lester after seven innings and 96 or fewer pitches thrown. With Lester north of 30, Maddon and Cubs were likely thinking long-term, both season-wise and career-wise. Lester’s efficiency actually improved from last season, as his pitches per plate appearance (3.95 to 3.85) and pitches per inning (15.9 to 15.5) both decreased.
Lester made a quarter of his starts against the league’s two best regular season teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. In those eight starts, Lester posted a 2.15 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 26,2 percent strikeouts, proving once again the more crucial the showdown, the more locked-in Lester will be.
The four-seam had peaks and valleys, including location issues that led to a home run barrage in May and June (six in six games). However, with the pitch, Lester picked up the same amount of strikeouts as in 2014 while allowing the same amount of home runs and fewer doubles. Slugging percentage off the pitch jumped from .390 to .424, but that was aided by an abnormally high six triples.
True, Lester’s velocity with his four-seam fastball has dropped nearly a full mile per hour from 2013 (93.81 to 92.84), and 2015 was the first time he dropped below 93-mph for a full season since 2007. However, he was actually a tick higher post All Star break (92.97 MPH) than it was pre All Star break (92.71 MPH). And in September, Lester set a season high for both overall four-seam usage (49.68 percent) and first-pitch four-seam usage (62.42 percent), finishing strong with his primary pitch. When he hit his spots, it remained a dominant pitch.
The cutter was Lester’s best and most consistent pitch in the second half. For about a dozen starts in July and August, the curve became a reliable and go-to strikeout pitch. Late in the season, the change emerged as a late-in-counts pitch to complement his fastballs. By the end of the regular season, Lester and David Ross were in perfect synch, using all five of his pitches early and late in counts. Lester was getting ahead of hitters (about 65 percent first strikes), and expanding the strike zone.
So, if Lester’s stuff is as effective as it’s ever been, his peripherals still align with the best in the league, and the strikeout and walk rates improved, why is there a sense of disappointment about Lester’s 2015? I have a few theories:
- W-L Record: Despite modern metrics burrowing their way into the mainstream, a sub-.500 record will still underwhelm fans and be keyed on by national media not watching every start, which will in turn rile up fans even greater. While Lester’s pitching numbers were similar to last season, at 3.72 runs per start, Lester had the sixth-worst run support in the NL, and it took an August “surge” from the offense to keep him out of the bottom three, where he had been most of the season. The team scored two or fewer runs in 15 of his 32 starts, and Lester’s record suffered as a result.
- Bad First Impression: April was Lester’s worst month by average start length, ERA, WHIP, and OPS. He failed to make it out of the fifth inning his first start of the season, which happened to be the nationally televised opening game of the MLB season. Lester made only one start in spring training, and Maddon reiterated multiple times that he considered Lester’s first couple starts a continuation of spring, as he rounded into regular season form. Lester would be his normal self come May, but nevertheless, first impressions can be tough to shake, no matter what comes next.
- Caught in the Midst of History: Lester’s first season in the National League coincided with remarkable seasons from Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Gerrit Cole. Despite a group of generational pitchers at their peak, Lester more than held his own, finishing top nine in innings pitched, WHIP, FIP, and strikeout rate. Lester, with his $155 million contract, was not even the best pitcher on his own team, but few in the history of baseball have been as good as Arrieta was in 2015. He suffered by comparison.
October notwithstanding, Lester finished 2015 pitching his best baseball of the season. In Lester’s 14 starts after the All-Star break, he posted a 3.04 ERA, 0.961 WHIP, 26.9 percent strikeout rate, with an opponent’s OPS of .597. July and September were Lester’s two best months by average start length, WHIP, opponent’s OPS, strikeout rate, and walk rate.
Looking ahead, his fastball velocity and location will be the key, since he relies so much on his four-seam and cutter (about 70 percent combined usage) to both set up his curve and to put away hitters. His fastballs were dominant in the second half, but in the middle of the season, Lester struggled to hit his spots with the fastballs, resulting in a lot of home runs and forcing David Ross to experiment with setting up further inside to compensate for the control issues. And when Lester struggles with his fastball early, he goes to it with increased frequency, abandoning his offspeed and breaking pitches, and becoming too predictable. No longer capable of consistently hitting 95-96 on the radar gun, Lester’s success in 2015 and next season came, and will come, when he hits his spots on the corners, especially early in counts, and keeps the ball down.
Perhaps more than anything else heading into 2016, Lester will have the benefits of consistency and normalcy this offseason. Since 2011, Lester has played for five managers and seven pitching coaches, came off an emotional, whirlwind World Series, dealt with uncertain contract status, and the free agency process. He goes into the offseason knowing the team, manager, and pitching coach for whom he will be playing next season, and beyond.
There will come a time when eight straight seasons of at least 191.2 innings pitched for a pitcher who throws 80 percent fastballs will begin to show its wear. In 2015, though, Lester showed little sign of regression. In 2016, expect him to take the ball every fifth day, limit baserunners, pitch into the seventh inning, struggle occasionally with fastballs up in the zone, and pitch his best in his team’s biggest games.
Last winter, Jon Lester provided the Cubs rebuilding strategy with legitimacy. This offseason, he preps to be the no. 1A or 2 starter on a team with legitimate World Series aspirations. What a difference a year makes, huh?
Lead photo courtesy of Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports