Player Profile 2019: Jon Lester

Position: Starting Pitcher. Supplier of perfect metaphors for the 2018 season.

2018 Stats: 3.32 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 4.44 DRA, 1.31 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 18-6, 1.8 WARP

Year in Review:

“Sometimes you need to get your dick knocked in the dirt to appreciate it. Maybe we needed that.”

— Jon Lester following the Cubs’ elimination from the Wild Card Game

If nothing else, in 2018 Jon Lester proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that once he retires from baseball, he’ll have an amazing second career as a lyricist for Toby Keith.  Lester’s summation of how the Cubs crashed and burned against the Rockies shared perhaps the most important quality of all the best baseball quotes from luminaries like Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra: I’m not sure what it means. But I agree with it one hundred percent.

In fact, the only negative aspect of Lester’s chosen image is that it’s also the most accurate depiction of the Chili Davis hitting philosophy.

With the exception of a stretch from late-July to mid-August, Lester did everything in his power to keep the Cubs’ season from ending in the way he described. And as Patrick Mooney aptly argued back in July, in doing so, Lester firmly established his standing atop the pantheon of the greatest free agent signings in the history of Chicago sports. And the best part about Mooney’s story is realizing that it’s not hyperbole or clickbait.

Lester’s 2018 season ended up playing out like a six-month version of one of his starts where it was clear at the outset that he was having a bit of trouble dialing in with his command and hitting the corners. But rather than resign himself to his fate, he stubbornly kept trying to nick the outside edge of the plate with his cutter over and over. And over and over and over. Until finally, by the end of the game, he fully established the pitch and it turned out to be yet another quality start.

And in this metaphor that was as painfully stretched out as a Tommy Pham lead off first, Lester’s opponent was his peripherals.

He began the year with a rough Opening Day that saw him allow seven hits, three walks, and three earned runs without making it out of the fourth inning. It was the kind of debut performance had many thinking that this was the beginning of the dreaded “back half” of Lester’s contract where the memo on his every paycheck for the next three years might as well read “Thank you for 2016, I guess…”

But for the next three months after that, Lester disdainfully viewed reports of his decline phase the way he looks at anyone who sees him in a cowboy hat and asks “Weren’t you born in Tacoma?” In 18 starts from April 5 through July 15, he shut down the rest of the league to the tune of a 12-2 record with a 2.41 ERA and limited opposing hitters to a .216/.295/.354 slash line.

In the midst of that outstanding stretch, Lester took home Pitcher of the Month honors for June, winning all five of his starts while allowing only four runs and a .477 OPS over 32 innings pitched. Things appeared to be going as well as they’d ever been in Lester’s four years in Chicago. He earned another All Star selection, sportswriters were placing him in the Andre Dawson pantheon of free agent signings, and he even caught Ryan Braun attempting to steal third by revealing a pickoff technique he apparently learned at the feet of John Stockton.

The only way Lester could have publicly embarrassed the Brewers left fielder any worse was if he were one of Braun’s t-shirts.

There was only one problem with this stretch of greatness: those damn peripherals. Over that same 18 games, Lester’s stellar numbers were fueled by an unsustainable .245 BABIP. Just as ominously, he appeared to have stopped missing bats altogether, accruing only 86 strikeouts over 108.1 innings thanks to a nine percent swinging strike rate. It was 2018 and Lester was getting outs like he belonged in a rotation with pitchers named Mordecai and Orval. 

Regression was coming. And if the foreshadowing were any more obvious and ham-handed, those stats would have been written by George Lucas.

Indeed, Lester then embarked on a five start stretch where he looked as lost as he ever has in a Cubs uniform. A 10.32 ERA. Opposing hitters slashed .383/.439/.766 and posted a .386 BABIP. Basically, if you simply put the bat on the ball against the Cubs ace, you were instantly transformed into some unholy combination of several Hall of Fame level hitters with a name like Rod Carujols.

Throughout his visit to peripheral hell, Lester kept insisting to the media that he would make the necessary adjustments to return to form. Sure enough, what that eventually amounted to was trusting his four-seamer and leaning more heavily on his cutter than he had all year as he increased his usage of that pitch from 24 percent at the beginning of August all the way to 31 percent by season’s end.

With that change in approach, Lester proceeded to spend the rest of the season staring down his peripherals as if they were an Angel Hernández strike zone. His last eight starts were a statement of triumph: Lester won six of those games with a 1.71 ERA and a much more dominant 44 strikeouts in 47.1 innings.

His performance in the Wild Card Game could have been legendary if only his teammates were capable of scoring a run. Which, granted, is like saying “Only one thing was keeping Ernie Banks from being named World Series MVP…” Nonetheless, Lester once again stepped up in a big way, striking out nine in six ruthlessly dominant innings, and was the only highlight of the Cubs’ playoff “run” who didn’t wear his hat to the left.

So don’t let that 1.8 WARP or 4.44 DRA fool you. Jon Lester was worth every penny yet again in 2018 and continued to cement his legacy as one of the greatest Cubs pitchers of all time. It was a privilege to watch him work every five days and he continued to add to his legend as one of the most prominent faces of the Cubs renaissance.

And we didn’t even need to get any “vital” organs knocked in the dirt to appreciate him.

Looking Ahead: Lester remains an odd pitcher to project because he outperformed PECOTA’s guess on his ERA for 2018 (3.95) but thanks to those damned peripherals and one nightmare month, he underperformed compared to its estimate of his WARP (2.5). 

Going forward, Lester’s ability to make adjustments is going to determine everything about whether or not he can continue to perform at an elite level. If he can continue to figure out what he needs to do to put up the strikeout rate he displayed during the last six weeks of the season, it’s reasonable to assume that he will again have several stretches of brilliance like he did in 2018.

But if the adjustments are harder to come by, those FIP and DRA numbers are indicators that we should expect his performance to drop off to that of a mid-rotation starter. Which is perfectly fine for a 35-year-old on the back end of his contract. But that’s also not the Big Jon we’ve come to know and love over the past four years.

So you know what? At this point, Lester has earned the benefit of the doubt. Until he definitely demonstrates otherwise, FIP and DRA can suck it. Expect 180 innings of near-ace level performance, an ERA in the mid-threes, and multiple dominant postseason starts on his path to Cooperstown.

And if that last paragraph reads like I just spontaneously grew an extra 150 pounds and a pork grease-stained mustache, it’s because Jon Lester brings out Da Superfan in everybody.

Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports

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