At the All-Star break, in the first year of his six-year, $155 million contract, Jon Lester is 4-8 with a 3.59 ERA for the Chicago Cubs. At first glance, the record is ugly for Lester, and no team wants to see their big free agent signing with a winning percentage of just .333 as the second half of the season gets set to open. Despite the unsightly record, however, Lester is far from the bust many in Chicago would like to label him.
For his career, Jon Lester has a 3.58 ERA. This season, in 18 starts, he has nearly matched that on the nose in 110.1 innings. The 31-year-old right-hander has struck out 8.9 per nine and walked just 2.4 per nine. The strikeout rate is above his career norm and the walk rate below. Lester is allowing a .255 BAA, not significantly higher than the .249 average he has allowed over the course of his ten-year career.
What I am getting at here, is that Jon Lester is doing exactly what you would expect of him in 2015 based upon past performance. In his first season in the National League, Lester has had a choppy season to say the least. He started the year off with a 6.23 April ERA and an 0-2 record. That sour month was followed with a polar opposite month of May. In the second month of the season, Lester went 4-1 with a 1.76 ERA. The roller coaster ride continued in June. After a phenomenal May, Lester was on a downward path once again, with a 5.74 ERA and 0-3 record in the month. As baseball takes its annual break, Lester has posted a 1.71 ERA in three July starts.
So much for consistency.
When looking at Lester’s numbers on the season, it is difficult to really nail down what is causing this. It is very possible that he has just been flat out unlucky this season. Here is how his BABip has gone each month in 2015 — .424, .263, .355, .255. In the months in which Lester has really struggled to prevent runs, he is allowing a BABip significantly higher than the league average. It is far too easy, however, to label Lester merely a victim of bad luck. These are not groundballs sneaking through the hole, or dying quails flared over the second baseman’s head. In April, Lester allowed a .456 slugging percentage and in June that number ballooned to .500 thanks to nine doubles, two triples, and three home runs allowed in just five starts.
Clearly Lester is not just a victim of bad luck. In those combined nine starts in April and June in which he has a 5.96 ERA and is 0-5, Lester has allowed 23 extra base hits. The high BABip in those months is no statistical anomaly. The fact that Lester has seen nearly 11% of his fly balls leave the yard, however does seem to look like an anomaly.
I am willing to chalk up the poor performance in April by Lester to his league change. He is not the first pitcher to struggle when making the switch from American League to National League, and he certainly won’t be the last, although pitchers do typically have an easier time handling a switch than hitters.
To really try and see what’s up with Jon Lester this season, let’s compare his months of May and June and see if there is anything that stands out.
First thing’s first, you need to take a look at the teams Lester pitched against in those months. In May, Lester faced the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Washington Nationals. In June, he faced the Miami Marlins, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, Minnesota Twins, and Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s clear that Lester faced some weaker offensive teams in the month of May, but there were good and bad teams sprinkled into both months. What I really want to see is whether or not Lester struggled with a specific pitch between the two months. That should give better insight into what is and is not working for him this year.
In May, Lester allowed a .221 BAA on his fastball, sinker, and cutter. His curve was also working, to the tune of a .226 BAA. Those are the pitches Lester uses most frequently, with a changeup used only occasionally. In June, when he struggled, Lester allowed a .329 BAA on his hard stuff, with a BABip and slugging percentage through the roof. Was that bad luck, or, as I personally believe, partly his responsibility. To me, it is lazy to just fall back on BABip when trying to evaluate a pitcher’s performance. Good pitchers miss bats and generally induce weaker contact. Pitchers who are struggling see a rise in BABip because they are failing to locate their pitches properly and are allowing more hard hit balls.
Lester allowed line drives at a much higher clip in June. That can be attributed to poor location. Another point that stands out is the fact that Lester is seeing a higher percentage of batted balls being pulled or sent up the middle. That speaks to the fact that hitters are squaring up his pitches more often on the year. Looking at the whole picture, however, there does not appear to be anything wrong with Jon Lester as a pitcher — just a few missed spots against some of the better hitting teams in baseball. Here’s a look at where hits are landing against Lester this year.
Based on raw swing-and-miss numbers, Lester still has the ability to miss bats. There has been no decline in his abilities in that regard. He is striking out more batters per game, walking fewer, and allowing home runs at roughly the same pace as he has over his entire career. It’s been a choppy road, but despite all of the ups and downs, Jon Lester has essentially matched his career numbers in 2015. One oft-sighted issue with Lester — his inability to hold a runner — has not even plagued him all that much. Yes, Lester has already allowed a career-high 24 stolen bases. His catchers have thrown out only four would-be basestealers. The cat is officially out of the bag following last year’s Wild Card game against the Kansas City Royals, but Lester has actually allowed only seven of those stolen bases in games in which he took the loss.
When Jon Lester has been good this year, he has been very good. When he has been bad — well look out. In each of his eight losses, save one, he has failed to turn in a quality start. The consistency just is not there, and that makes it difficult to label Jon Lester a true ace — something I never thought he was in the first place. Despite the high price tag, Lester is more suited to serving as a second or third starter, especially as he ages. That’s not a knock on him, per se, but he would certainly not be my first choice to take on Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer in a must-win game. Over the remaining five years of Lester’s contract, the Cubs will likely see declining performance, but should still get plenty of quality starts mixed in. Lester has also made a name for himself as a big game pitcher in the playoffs (last year’s Wild Card game not withstanding).
The Cubs paid number-one starter money for Jon Lester. It is highly unlikely they will realize that type of return on their investment, but they don’t need it, especially as their young bats mature and become comfortable at the Major League level. What the Cubs need is consistent performance from Lester. He cannot give them months like April and June. If he can do that, the Cubs should walk away from their time with Jon Lester satisfied that money was well spent. He is far from a bust, despite what the win-loss record reads, and a more consistent second half of the 2015 season should confirm that for fans in the Windy City.