This past weekend, I shared an article from Sahadev Sharma on Cubs ace Jake Arrieta. Arrieta had such an historically awesome season in 2015, was without a doubt the anchor of the starting rotation, and won himself a Cy Young award in the process. On October 7, for example, he took the ball in a one-game playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates and delivered a 9-inning shutout, as well as the Cubs’ first NLDS appearance in seven years.
If you rewind the season about six months, though, there was a different anchor taking the ball against a division rival: Jon Lester.
Fresh off of a six-year, $155 million contract, Lester threw the first pitch of what was ultimately the most exciting Cubs season in my entire lifetime. I remember being nervous for Lester, and for the team. There was so much excitement and buzz at Wrigley Field, that, to be honest, I didn’t think Lester or the Cubs could live up to it. His contract was, after all, the largest in team history.
Lester wasn’t awful, but the Cubs lost to the Cardinals 3-0, and he wasn’t able to get out of the fifth inning. I think that after all of the hype, build-up, tension and dollars, fans were pretty quickly turned off. It just wasn’t the start we expected – or, should I say the one we thought we deserved – from our new, big-time starting pitcher. Despite excellent peripherals, Lester had a 6.23 ERA through four April starts, and, to many, that was that.
Until the rest of the season happened, and Lester was on fire.
As a whole, Lester’s season looks quite different. He finished with a 3.34 ERA (2.92 FIP) with an impressive 207 strikeouts and just 47 walks in just over 200 innings. Lester had exceedingly strong peripherals and a ground ball rate pushing 50%. During the 2015 season, Jon Lester dominated, acquiring exactly 5.0 WAR in the process.
Despite what Arrieta was doing, I think that most would agree that Lester’s first year with the Cubs was a resounding success. But even that might not be a strong enough review.
Jon Lester’s first year wasn’t just good, and it wasn’t just a success. It was one of the best starting pitcher performances we’ve seen by a Cub in a very long time. In fact, over the past 20 seasons (1996-2015), Jon Lester’s 2015 campaign was the third best behind just two others: Mark Prior (2003) and Jake Arrieta (2015).
Even extending the time frame back to 1969 – when MLB lowered the mound to increase offense – Lester’s 2015 season falls to just 16th overall. That’s behind six combined seasons from Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Fergie Jenkins.
So, yes, Jake Arrieta was extraordinary in 2015, historic even … but so was Jon Lester. He didn’t just earn his pay last year; he delivered one of the best performances in Cubs’ history. Without him, the Cubs wouldn’t have had one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory.