Obviously a 3-2 record 4.10 ERA through seven starts is not what many had in mind when he signed a six-year deal worth $155 million last winter, and that’s how things looked for the Cubs’ free agent ace heading into the weekend. Those numbers are underwhelming at face value, but at this stage of the game, we should know a pitcher is more than his individual win-loss record.
Not only did Lester go on to dominate the Pirates on Saturday, improving his baseball card stats, but here’s something to consider: the Cubs, as a team, are 6-2 when Lester starts. More often than not, Lester has given the Cubs a chance to win when he has taken the mound.
Through Saturday’s start against the Pirates, Lester has rattled off five consecutive quality starts in which he had done a good job of keeping the bases clean thanks in part to a 6.5 percent walk rate and 1.15 WHIP over that stretch. His 23.9 percent strikeout rate helps, too, as batters have seen a decline in balls put in play off Lester in the last five starts.
In truth, the Cubs’ pitching success goes well beyond Lester, and well beyond those five starts. The front-end triumvirate of Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel have been the most valuable pitchers on the Cubs roster.
The team is 14-9 (.609 winning percentage) when Lester, Arrieta or Hammel takes the ball.
Further, those three have combined to put together 16 of the rotation’s 19 quality starts. The Cubs’ record in those games is 13-3.
In some ways, this is how the front of the rotation should operate. Get enough strong outings from the front end and the team will likely have a winning record over the long haul.
However, it also raises some questions of how much of the load they will have to carry as long as the back end of the rotation struggles to eat innings and provide quality starts.
The struggles of Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood have already put a bit of burden on the bullpen (which now features Wood, who will be displaced from the rotation in favor of Tsuyoshi Wada, starting tomorrow).
Even though the team is 7-7 when Hendricks or Wood starts, members of the bullpen have done their share of heavy lifting in those games. Cubs relievers have pitched 4 innings or more in 8 of their 14 starts.
While manager Joe Maddon mixes and matches his way toward figuring out a satisfactory bullpen combination, the best way for the Cubs to go about finding balance and success on their pitching staff is for Lester, Arrieta and Hammel to keep doing what their doing.
But to do it at the rate they have done through 23 starts is easier said than done.