The good news about Jon Lester’s start last night, as has been the case with all the Cubs’ starting pitchers so far, is that he feels good. Sure, guys can still struggle even when they’re feeling good, but if a guy feels bad, if he feels injured, well, then you know things are going downhill.
And Lester doesn’t just feel good, he feels really good about last night’s start, specifically.
“It’s probably the best I’ve thrown the ball all year,” Lester said, per Cubs.com. “That’s baseball. I made the adjustment too late. The two innings cost us five runs, and I put these guys behind the eight ball too early.”
Lester didn’t specify the adjustment he made, though he faced the minimum in innings 3, 4, and 5, before giving up a solo homer in the 6th. So it’s certainly possible that something was fixed, and some flukey scoring in the early innings threw off the overall outside perception of the night.
Joe Maddon called it a “weird night,” and seemed to agree that Lester threw the ball well despite the results (Tribune): “He gave up two homers and a hard-hit ball down the third base line. That’s it.”
Lester’s movement, command, and velocity all did look reasonably good in the game, and a .421 BABIP against, a 65.2% LOB rate, and a 40.0% HR/FB rate would all scream out to you as unlucky in a larger sample. But it’s worth noting that Lester netted just nine whiffs (his better outings last year were typically in the 14/15 range), suggesting the Pirates were on him fairly well. Moreover, while Lester certainly wasn’t getting rocked, he did give up 11 batted balls of over 90mph exit velocity (higher than average for him), 9 of which went for hits.
In other words, while I’d agree that Lester was unlucky to give up as many runs as he did (and was definitely not helped by his defense), the Pirates’ hits were by and large well-struck, and they were making consistent contact.
Again, though: if Lester says he feels good, and believes he threw the ball well, that’s good enough for me to toss this one aside and move on to the next. He’s earned that.
Overall, Lester’s start to the season has been an interesting one, as he’s generally looked like his usual self, even as he adjusts to working with a new catcher, Willson Contreras. His ERA/FIP/xFIP line is 3.68/3.55/3.82 through 29.1 innings, with the biggest standout difference from last year being the ERA (2.44), and a huge portion of that difference owing to a BABIP increase (from .256 last year to .349 so far this year).
One thing that’s been notably down so far this year for Lester, though – including, as mentioned, in this past start – is his swinging strike rate. Although Lester has put up a figure over 10% each of the past three seasons, that figure is just 8.4% this year. It was at 9.6% through April last year, though, so perhaps it’s just a matter of warming up. Still, given the importance of those whiffed strikes (and what they suggest about stuff and command), it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.
A couple other things to watch: Lester is throwing first pitch strikes at a greatly reduced rate (53.6% this year, after being over 60% each of the past three seasons), and batters are swinging much less at his offerings (40.8% swing rate this year, after being around 46% each of the past three seasons). The sample is not huge here, but the implication is that hitters are less concerned about falling behind in the count right now, and are not being forced to expand their zone. These two numbers would also help explain why Lester’s five starts have generally been fairly short, as he’s worked deeper counts against more patient hitters.
Time will tell if that’s just early-season, small-sample, ramp-up stuff, or if there’s some adjusting going on for Lester and Willson Contreras. Or if it’s something else entirely.