I have a confession.
Before Jon Lester’s start against the Reds (May 18th), I advised my friend Danny (who filmed me jumping into Lake Michigan) to test his Fantasy Baseball trade market, to see if someone would give up some extra value for the Cubs’ big, veteran left-hander.
It’s not that I didn’t believe in Lester, I just thought that, given the wide expanse between his results (2.66 ERA) and his peripherals (4.51 FIP) at the time, someone might unknowingly overpay for some regressive performances in the future.
Fortunately, my friend did not listen to me, because I did a dumb.
Against the Reds, Lester lasted six innings, gave up only one earned run, and, perhaps most importantly, struck out eight batters against just one walk. And then last night, Lester went even deeper (7.0 IP, tied for his longest start of the year), and allowed just one earned run on six hits and one walk against four strikeouts.
Perhaps the game didn’t turn out in the Cubs’ favor, but it was definitely not because of Lester. He was great:
By the end of yesterday’s start, Lester threw 104 pitches, 67 of which fell in for strikes, including a modest, but certainly not terrible, seven whiffs.
The most important outcome, though, was the lack of walks. Before these past two starts, Lester had walked 3 or more batters in five of his eight starts (10.6% walk rate). And although that’s not anywhere near, say, Tyler Chatwood levels, it still wasn’t anywhere near what the Cubs were used to seeing from Lester in 2015 (5.7 BB%), 2016 (6.5 BB%), or 2017 (7.9 BB%). And of course, the walks were even more of a concern, given the declining nature of his strikeout rate, which was below 20% before his start in Cincinnati.
But after going notching 12 strikeouts against just 2 walks in his past two outings, Lester’s strikeout rate is back above 20% and his walk rate below 10%.
BUT WAIT! There’s more!
While I’m very happy to see Lester’s K/BB numbers improve back to more normal levels, that’s not really how he’s gone from good to great in recent seasons. Instead, Lester has always been a fairly solid contact manager, at least during his time with the Cubs:
Soft Contact: 21.4% (6th in NL)
Hard Contact: 29.0% (22nd in NL)
Ground Ball: 48.9% (17th in NL)
Soft Contact: 18.9% (17th in NL)
Hard Contact: 26.8% (5th in NL)
Ground Ball: 46.9% (12th in NL)
Soft Contact: 21.4% (8th in NL)
Hard Contact: 28.1% (7th in NL)
Ground Ball: 46.2% (16th in NL)
Before last night’s start, however, Lester had generated just a 15% soft-hit rate and a 35% hard-hit rate. Both represented his worst marks since joining the Cubs three years ago. But last night was different. Last night, Lester held the Indians batters off balance, earning an above-average 19.1% soft-hit rate and a massively below-average 14.3% hard-hit rate. He still struggled to get ground balls at the rate you’d like to see, but concurrent improvements in your K/BB and contact management (in back-to-back starts, no less) is enough to avoid picking nits.
And if you’re looking for an explanation for the improved results, I think you needn’t look any further then his improved velocity. According to Brooks, Lester averaged 92.3 MPH on his fastball last night, 89.2 MPH on his cutter, and 91.9 MPH on his sinker, compared to a season average of 91.6 MPH, 87.9 MPH, and 90.7 MPH before last night. That’s a huge leap, and, evidently, part of the reason Lester was able to succeed.
So going forward, we can say this: if Lester can keep his velocity up around that 92-92.5 MPH mark, he may just be able to naturally continue missing bats (K%) and keeping hitters off balance (soft/hard%). From there, he’ll have to work on staying in the zone (BB%) and getting more ground balls, but given his history of succeeding with both, I wouldn’t put it past him.
And, hey, if he does figure it out and his underlying performance begins to look more promising, his end-of-season numbers might look stellar, thanks to a few more fortunate games early on.