In the bottom of the eighth inning of a one run ballgame last night, Jon Lester stepped up the plate to hit for himself.
Joe Maddon likely received some second-guessing from analysts and fans, as an insurance run would have been nice and Lester is a notoriously bad hitter. But with Hector Rondon being unavailable and Lester’s confidence unyielding, Maddon handed him a bat (well, metaphorically) and told him to hit a home run (that time I meant it literally).
Lester promptly struck out on six pitches, but the gamble was worth it. Lester went back out for the ninth, and got the first three batters out on two groundouts and a strikeout to end – and win – the game. The complete game was just the second for Lester as a Cub, and according to his manager, it was Lester’s best start yet with the team.
Overall, Lester’s line looked brilliant last night. After allowing a first inning (first batter, actually) home run to Enrique Hernandez, Lester settled in, allowing just three hits and no walks for the rest of the game (9.0 IP, 1ER, 4H, 0BB, 10Ks). Those 10 strikeouts tied his season record (set twice this year), and helped raise his 2016 strikeout rate to 24.9% for the season.
Let’s relive some of the key moments:
So was it really his best game of the year? Maddon seems to think so. “I think that might have been the best I’ve seen Jonny since I’ve been here,” Maddon said via Carrie Muskat at MLB.com. “He maintained his velocity throughout, his strike throwing throughout, his cutter was 91 [mph] in the ninth inning, his curveball had depth to it. He repeated his delivery over and over. He gives up a leadoff homer and then nothing. That’s physically the best I’ve seen him pitch here.”
And the numbers echo that sentiment. Lester’s nine inning, one run effort yielded a game score of 85 last night. That’s the highest number on the season and his highest total since August 7, 2014 (a three hit, complete game shutout against the Twins, back before he came to the Cubs). His Win Probability Added (WPA) last night (0.60) was also the fourth highest of his entire career. In more ways than one, Lester was at his best last night.
And so far, his best is among the best in baseball.
Through his first 11 starts to the season, Lester has a 2.29 ERA with solid peripherals (3.22 FIP, 3.34 xFIP) to support it. His 24.9% strikeout rate is right in line (almost precisely) with his past two seasons (where he’s collected a combined 10.5 fWAR) and his walk rate is at a healthily low 6.1%.
Among qualified starters, here’s where Lester ranks on a variety of statistics:
Jon Lester 2016:
- ERA: 2.29 (T-8th, Chris Sale)
- FIP: 3.22 (23rd)
- K-rate: 24.9% (21st)
- BB-rate: 6.1% (32nd)
- K/BB: 4.06 (22nd)
- AVG: .212 (18th)
- fWAR: 1.6 (17th)
He’s basically been a top twenty starter in all of baseball, and has been trending upwards of late. And, given his fantastic 2015 season (top three by fWAR for the Cubs in over 20 years) and projected ability to continue pitching at this level well into his 30s, you have to assume that the front office is very pleased with the contract they handed him a couple Decembers ago.