Coming into yesterday’s first half finale, you might have said that Jon Lester was one of the few bright spots on the team, performing more or less as well as you’d hoped he would.
He must have felt the tug of joining the rest of his mates in a deeply disappointing first half, as yesterday was the first time in Jon Lester’s long and effective career that he didn’t make it out of the first inning.
Lester had no answers for the 0.2 inning, 10 run (4 earned) start that featured six hits, three walks, two errors, and a battered partridge in fruitless pear tree.
“If I had a reason, I would’ve fixed it out there,” Lester told Cubs.com after the game. “Unfortunately, it’s never a good time to have a bad start. I really don’t know – I don’t know what to say to make it better, to give you a reason. It kind of speaks for itself. It’s embarrassing.”
If you’re a masochist, you can watch the damage replay here. I don’t always know what “it” is, but, whatever it is, Lester didn’t have it yesterday.
If the start yesterday seemed vaguely familiar, you might remember the game in which Lester got bombed out by the Mets for eight runs in 1.1 innings in early July last year. That came during last year’s horrible stretch, and preceded a second horrible outing right before the All-Star break. There was reasonable and understandable concern. Lester went on to post a 1.76 ERA, a 2.77 FIP, and a 3.38 xFIP the rest of the way and became a Cy Young finalist. That’s not to say it’ll happen again this year, but at least there’s recent precedent for Lester *completely* shaking off a horrific outing.
Kris Bryant took much of the blame for that first inning, having booted a potential inning-ending double play before any of the scoring began, which instead resulted in no outs, and the carnage ensued. That’s fair and a standup thing, but errors happen, and they don’t always unravel into 10-run innings.
You can see Lester discuss the hopefully very forgettable outing:
In some ways, you wish there were an obvious explanation – something that can be corrected to ensure all will be well going forward. And, given the track record, it probably will.
But it left us all with a hollow, head-shaking feeling at the end of a first half that was replete with them.
If you’re looking for silver linings on Lester’s season, the advanced metrics have a ton of them for you. Lester’s swinging strike rate is up from last year, his hard contact rate is more or less flat, his medium contact is down, and his soft contact rate is way up. He’s getting guys to swing outside the strike zone more often, and they aren’t doing anything with it when they do.
So why is his ERA nearly two points from last year (4.25)? Mostly it’s thanks to a massive jump in BABIP (.317 from .256 last year), an absurd drop in his left on base rate (just 67.2%, down from (an admittedly ridiculous) 84.9% last year), and a continued spike in his HR/FB ratio (15.8%).
What’s all that mean? Well, on paper, unlike several other Cubs pitchers who have “good” peripherals but bad results because they’re getting hit too hard, that’s not what it looks like for Lester. Instead, there seems to be a lot of good old fashioned bad luck baked into his results, coupled with more homers given up (tracking with the rest of the league on that front), and a much less effective defense behind him.
Not unlike after the bombout against the Mets last year, you probably should be betting on a good second half from Jon Lester. Probably not as good as last year – he’s a year older with a less effective defense behind him, after all – but definitely better than a 4.25 ERA suggests.