Because there’s been no shortage of news since Opening Night (bathrooms, postponed games, Starlin Castro hubbub, etc…), Jon Lester’s dead arm setback during Spring Training may have fallen off your radar. If you recall, back on March 20, we all freaked out a little to learn that Lester was scratched from his Spring Training start as a precaution. Then, we displayed cautious optimism after his Minor League starts went well enough. And finally, we breathed a sigh of relief to learn he was all set to pitch on Opening Night.
However, I think it’s fair to say that Lester’s first game as a Cub may not have gone exactly how we envisioned – causing us to lose site of the bigger picture victory: Lester reached his pitch count, hit normal velocity, and exited the game healthy.
This spring, Lester received far fewer competitive-ish innings in preparation for the season than a typical pitcher would hope to get. So in actuality, it may be more reasonable to examie Lester’s Opening Night performance as something in-between an actual, meaningful game, and a final Spring Training tune-up. Of course, unlike a Spring Training game, Lester was doing everything he could to win, as opposed to working on various things. But if this caused you to be disappointed by the results, you may be missing some overall context.
If Opening Night were a final Spring tune-up, what would be some of the key, underlying things to take away from the start? The most important, for a veteran like Lester, would be pitch count, pitch mix, velocity and health. Additionally, if I had to scout the stat line, I’d focus on peripheral statistics (BABIP, BBs, Ks, and FIP) more than the less predictable/controllable outcomes like ERA. Given those parameters, Lester’s first appearance was, more or less, a success.
Over his short debut, Lester threw 89 pitches (57 strikes) in 4.1 innings. Given that he had just reached over 80 pitches in one start (his last in Spring Training), 90-100 pitches was exactly the target (max) to shoot for.
Reminding us how he can continue to be effective even late into his career, Lester threw five different pitches for strikes Sunday night (Fastball, Sinker, Changeup, Curveball, and a Cutter). Using Brooks Baseball, we can see that he relied most heavily on his fastball and cutter, which is pretty typical for Lester. Even in a small sample, it’s encouraging to see the full use of his repertoire – one of his biggest strengths.
If Lester was experiencing any discomfort or lack of sharpness Sunday night, he didn’t let it affect his velocity. His fastball averaged 92.6 MPH, 0.2 MPH faster than his career average, and it maxed out just under 96 MPH. His cutter, Lester’s second most used pitch, matched his career average velocity exactly at 88.7 MPH, and topped out at 92.6 MPH.
By all accounts, including his own, Lester felt fine after the game. In what’s becoming typical Lester fashion, he assumed full responsibility for his start, and did not blame the outcome of the game on anything but his own performance.
At first blush, the stat line doesn’t inspire too much confidence: 8H, 3ER, 4.1IP (6.23 ERA) and a loss. But we know that stats like ERA and win-loss record can be entirely misleading, and nearly useless without context. So let’s look at some other stats from the game to see if he can get the whole picture. Your obligatory SMALL SAMPLE SIZE warning goes here. We’re just having a discussion.
Starting simply, Lester issued only two walks, but struck out six Cardinals. A pitcher’s K/BB ratio is very important and predictive of future success, and 6 to 2 is pretty solid. If you’re curious about the rates, those two walks were probably about one too many (9.1%), but he made up for it with strikeouts (27.3%). Lester may not have pitched for too long, but when he did he made it count. If you’re wondering, then, how he exited with a 6.23 ERA, your answer is “because of an insanely high BABIP and unlucky hit sequencing.”
On Opening Night, Lester gave up 8 hits in his 4.1 innings of work while carrying an unusually high .571 BABIP. I know many of you dislike using “luck” as an excuse for poor performance, but the truth is, you simply are not likely to see Lester face that kind of BABIP every time he goes out. If one or two of those hits happen to fall into a Cubs glove (and there were at least three bloopers that easily could have been caught), the final line may have looked quite different.
Lester’s FIP (a stat that is used to identify how well a pitcher pitched based solely on the things he can control) tells a much different story than his ERA. At 1.16, Lester’s FIP was actually much lower (better) than we should probably expect when he actually amasses a meaningful sample. Also, we can’t just assume Lester deserved to have an ERA to match that – he was hit pretty hard – but that FIP does show that his poor final stat line may not have been entirely his doing, or entirely unnerving.
At the end of the day, this was just one start for Lester – who was not afforded the luxury of having a full spring to prepare for the season. Given that he was able to reach his pitch count, throw all of his pitches (at the right velocities) and still have strong peripherals, I am more than happy with the results.
The number one takeaway from Opening Night is that Lester is healthy, and nothing in his performance necessarily predicts anything other than the season ahead that he always would have had, regardless of the dead arm.