Last night, Jon Lester made his fifth start of the season, and although it was a loss with a game score of just 45 … I’m not so sure it was all that bad.
Consider that Lester lasted a full 7.0 innings for the first time this season (the first time ANY Cubs started had recorded an out in the 7th inning), and allowed just three earned runs on four hits and two walks throughout. Obviously, three of the four hits were solo shots that gave the Indians all the runs they’d need for the night, but two of the homers were just barely over 370 feet and 100 MPH (and one of those hit the foul pole).
Frankly, those homers aren’t homers every time, so it’s just a bit of tough luck for Lester, who had this humorous remark after the game:
Jon Lester, after giving up 3 solo home runs in a 4-1 loss tonight: "Whoever said solo home runs can't beat you is full of sh– I guess."
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) April 26, 2018
To be clear, Lester doesn’t think his start was bad. In fact, he seems to believe he executed almost exactly as planned: “The only pitch that was a bad decision on my part was to Guyer,” Lester said via Cubs.com. “I threw him a cutter hoping he’d hit it on the ground, and it got enough of the plate where he hit it out. The other two, Lindor goes oppo and you tip your hat, and then a ball on the ground that Encarnacion hits out. That’s the game, unfortunately.”
And for what it’s worth, Joe Maddon agrees with that assessment: “He was really good, really sharp,” Manager Joe Maddon said via The Athletic. “They hit three home runs, right? Their home runs were fair, our home runs were foul and they win. It was a really pretty even game. Their pitcher was good, our pitcher was good. Both pitchers were really good. And they just hit the fair home run.”
Sometimes, that’s just the way it plays out.
But there must be some takeaways, right? Of course! Unfortunately … they aren’t all that great.
Lester averaged just 90.9 MPH on his fastball last night, which is down a bit from last season (91.8 MPH) and even more so since 2016 (93.11 MPH). He also managed just two whiffs on that pitch – and just five overall, despite throwing 107 pitches on the night.
Too Many Fly Balls
For another, Lester gave up a 71.4% fly ball rate, while getting just a 19.0% ground ball rate. That obviously shouldn’t shake your perception of him in the long run, because he’s more of a balanced guy, but for a single start in the juiced ball/fly ball era, that’s too many balls in the air. Some are going to leave the park.
Although Lester didn’t allow too much hard contact in this one (he was right around league average), he didn’t get much soft contact (14.3%). If you’re not consistently generating weak contact on the ground or striking out batters (14.8% yesterday), you might actually be fortunate to give up only three solo homers.
Hopefully, in his next start, Lester can ramp that four-seamer back up, and generate a few more whiffs to help get him over the hump. From there, it’s all about being himself, which means keeping the ball on the ground and inducing weak contact. Given that he’s been very good at both over the past, oh, say, decade, I’m betting he can keep it up.
Final thoughts: It was a decent start with some bad luck, some mediocre peripherals, and a few good signs. Or, put differently: I tend to think that he pitched well enough to win that game, and it just didn’t happen this time.
So for now, file it away, and move on to the next.