Position: Starting pitcher
Year in Review: By most accounts, Jon Lester’s 2017 was a disappointment. Every one of the above stats represents a worse performance than 2016, and, sometimes, Lester looked more like a league-average starter than the ace he had been the last several years. While Lester undoubtedly did lurch toward what might be “who he is” during his mid-30s and the back half of his six-year contract with the Cubs, there are a few things to note regarding Lester’s 2017 that I think are vital to understanding him.
First, his injuries. Or, more correctly, his fatigue. In August, Lester landed on the disabled list due to “fatigue” in his left shoulder, and it stands to reason that Lester had battled such tiredness for a while before he actually was deactivated. With two deep playoff runs following seasons of throwing 200-plus innings in 2015 and 2016, Lester just didn’t look as sharp as he had in his first two seasons in pinstripes. In fact, 2017 was only the second time since becoming a big-league starter full time that Lester did not reach the 200-inning plateau, and the first time since 2011.
There is a reasonable connection to be made between Lester’s apparent, and diagnosed, fatigue and his average results. That might render the results themselves less important in thinking about Lester going forward, but for the purposes of analyzing his 2017, they are still all we have. Lester struck out fewer batters, walked more, induced fewer groundballs, and gave up a higher percentage of home runs on flyballs. Those are bad trends! But the only one of those figures that was considerably worse than in 2016 was his home run percentage, and that number was up throughout the league due to the juiced ball. Lester’s 15.8 percent mark was two full percentage points worse than league average, the first time since 2012 that he was worse than league average in that department. The quality of contact Lester allowed doesn’t appear to have been significantly different from previous years, and sifting through Lester’s Brooks Baseball page for red flags that might have caused his average results is somewhat disappointing. There’s some data about his release point that coincides with his injury and DL stint, so there’s likely some corrections to be made mechanically.
Lester’s two worst stretches while in a Cubs uniform coincide with his arm slot changing: early 2015 and late 2017, when the lefty dropped his arm angle lower and more toward the first-base side. The latter features a smaller sample from August, since that’s when Lester hit the DL, but it’s somewhat instructive nonetheless. For reference, Lester’s career-worst 2012 season features a similar change in arm angle. There might be something mechanical that Lester and pitching coach Jim Hickey can pinpoint as a potential fix.
Our other concerning data point is Lester’s velocity dip. A lot was made of his 91 mph fastballs early in the season, as they were one or two ticks slower than the 92-93 zone in which he sat previously, but by the end of the season his velocity was closer to 92 than 91, and it showed up in the playoffs. I’m willing to believe that this is mostly the result of the fatigue, and that Lester could bounce back.
Overall, Lester turned in another three- or four-WARP season, and his DRA was still almost 20 percent better than league average. While his 2015 and 2016 seasons both featured five-win seasons and DRAs closer to 3.00 than 4.00, 2017 was hardly a lost season for Lester.
Looking Ahead: About that bounce back. I’m more confident that the fiercely competitive, provably durable Lester can find a great 2018 within him than I am about most other major leaguers who had down years, mostly because he wasn’t bad and he should have some time to work on becoming healthy again.
Unfortunately, Lester wasn’t much better once he came back from the DL in early September, so there isn’t an empirical component to believing in his potential resurgence in 2018. There are a lot more threes, fours, fives, sixes, in his “runs” columns for the latter parts of 2017 than would be encouraging. His strikeout and walk percentages were actually worse in the six starts he made after his DL stint, so there’s a good chance his fatigue is a longer-term issue. Really, he threw two clunkers and four solid starts in September, emblematic of his inconsistent year. There’s little material from which to draw hope there.
But… Jon Lester is still one of the best pitchers of his generation. With the emergence of Kyle Hendricks and the acquisition of Jose Quintana, plus the possible impending addition of another front-line starter (Yu Darvish?), there’s less pressure on Lester than there was in 2016 and 2017. He’s a wizened Cubs veteran now, entering the back half of his well-earned contract, and, knowing who Jon Lester is as a pitcher and as a competitor, the lefty will not rest on his laurels. Place your bets now, because Lester should have another fine year in 2018.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports