Throughout Spring Training 2016, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, catcher David Ross, and starting pitcher Jon Lester each indicated that the big lefty was looking particularly sharp and felt better and more prepared than he usually does at this point of the season.
So far, that’s been reflected on the field.
Through his three starts on the year, Jon Lester has given up just 5 earned runs on 13 hits and 5 walks over 20.1 innings pitched.
Although he’s already allowed two home runs (a 16.7% HR/fly ball ratio), he has struck out 19 batters and posted a 42% groundball rate. All together, then, he’s worked towards a pitching slash line of 2.21/3.11/2.72, which is obviously quite excellent. His most recent display against the Colorado Rockies on Sunday, for example, was his best outing of the young season.
Check it out:
Through 7.1 innings pitched, Lester gave up just 1 earned run on four hits and two walks. More impressively, he struck out 10 batters in the game.
And hey, he even ripped a double:
You can see all of the game/pitch specific data here on Brooks Baseball, but I’ll cover some of the more interesting angles for you right here.
Lester threw 99 pitches in Sunday’s outing, relying primarily on his fastball (42) and his cutter (27). His velocity was right where it should be – hovering between 92-93 MPH – although he did reach back and crank it up over 94 MPH a couple times throughout the game.
Interestingly, Lester’s curveball was one of his most effective pitches on Sunday. Out of the 15 curveballs thrown, 11 fell in for strikes (3 of which were of the swinging variety). In other words, 73.3% of the curveballs he threw fell in for strikes and 20% of the swings on his curveball were whiffs. When that curveball is working, it is really working.
However, pretty much everything was looking sharp for Lester on Sunday, and he finished with 64 strikes – 14 whiffs – overall. Here they are broken down by pitch type:
- Fastball: 30 strikes (6 whiffs)
- Sinker: 7 strikes (0 whiffs)
- Changeup: 2 strikes (1 whiff)
- Curveball: 11 strikes (3 whiffs)
- Cutter: 14 strikes (4 whiffs)
Indeed, on the season, Lester is striking out batters at a far better rate (25.3%) than he has for his career (22.2%), while also walking far fewer batters now (5.3%) than he has previously (7.9%). Even his early season batted ball data is showing some encouraging trends. For example, check out his hit rates from 2016 versus his every season prior:
There is legitimate improvement across the board, and when the actual results are combined with the multiple reports indicating how much better Lester feels and looks, it’s okay to be genuinely excited about what kind of season he can have in 2016.
Although Jon Lester had one of the best starting pitching seasons in recent Cubs history last year, I get the feeling that he is still slightly undervalued and relatively unheralded in Chicago (pitching in the shadow of Jake Arrieta will do that to a man), even after his strong start. But if his 2015 season wasn’t impressive enough for you, just take a peek at his stats from 2014, and you’ll find that Lester has the capability to be an obviously ace-caliber pitcher and Cy Young candidate for an entire season: 2.46 ERA (2.80 FIP), 219.2 IP, .233 opposing batting average.
Later in yesterday’s game, Lester even successfully made a throw over to first base (er … well, sorta):
Jon Lester worked on his bounce pass today. And it worked! https://t.co/LaW2S3WhGI
— Baseball is Fun (@flippingbats) April 17, 2016
Rockies center fielder Brandon Barnes tested Lester in the eighth inning on Sunday, dropping down a bunt directly in front of him. Lester, who has very publicly known issues throwing to first base, purposefully threw it low and made the out. Apparently, Lester and Anthony Rizzo have actually strategized about missing down (ESPN), so that Rizzo at least has a chance to make the play on the throw. Sunday was an example of how that strategy could work. It’s obviously not ideal, but not unlike David Ross watching Lester’s back with excellent defense behind the plate, it’s a way to mitigate those struggles for now.
On a team as exciting and talented as the Chicago Cubs, its easy to look over a quieter, more serious guy like Jon Lester. But make no mistake: he is one of the single most crucial pieces for the 2016 season. Add in the fact that he’s expected to age gracefully and is on a now seemingly team-friendly mega-deal, and you’ll be happy for Lester, the Cubs, and yourself to see him get off to such a fantastic start.