If you’re just looking at the numbers, Jon Lester has had such an unusual season. And yesterday was no exception.
At the start of the year, Lester appeared to be getting very lucky (at least, given his peripherals), so much so that we wrote about the impending doom to come if things didn’t change. And then poof! Just like that, Lester’s peripherals began to turn around and the results remained as good as ever. Admittedly, I think I undersold that, while you can almost always expect statistical regression, regression isn’t always a bad thing. If you turn the underlying statistics around, the numbers will “huddle” closer to that newly-set benchmark. And that’s what happened with the Cubs vet.
What was once luck turned into skill and the results were more than okay throughout.
But again, last night was weird. On the surface, Lester was absolutely excellent yet again, as he went another seven scoreless innings bringing his ERA down to 2.10, tied with Corey Kluber for 5th best in baseball.
- Jacob deGrom: 1.51
- Justin Verlander: 1.60
- Max Scherzer: 2.06
- Luis Severino: 2.09
- Corey Kluber/Jon Lester: 2.10
Behold his dominance and experience the awe!
But underneath it all, he induced ground balls at just a 29.2% rate (furthering a season-long trend below 40%), allowed a ton of line drives and fly balls, was below average on soft contact (16.7%) and gave up way too much hard-contact (45.8%). He got exactly zero infield pop-ups, and was fortunate to receive a 0% HR/FB ratio. Oh, and he recorded just one strikeout and two swinging strikes the entire afternoon on 119 pitches!
So, yeah … there are ways to look at the start and say it just wasn’t great.
When you record 21 outs, but just one of those outs comes on a K, you have to have good fortune on balls in play. And to do that *and earn it* you usually need some weak contact or plenty of grounders for double plays. Lester had none of that, but still made it work/was lucky.
For what it’s worth, Lester, himself, recognized the situation.
“It wasn’t exactly ideal on my end with pitching,” Lester told Cubs.com. “I really didn’t have much today and kind of grinded through that one. The defense, like I’ve said before, they’ve been picking us up all year. It’s kind of like, ‘Here, I don’t have anything, just hit it and hopefully those guys run it down and catch it.’ They did today.”
As Brett mentioned in the Bullets, though, Lester’s .208 BABIP yesterday might’ve been low compared to his career (.295) and season (.231) rates, but he’s actually had six lower BABIP starts already this season.
So then, I really wouldn’t put it past a veteran as smart and talented as Lester to recognize that he didn’t have his best stuff yesterday/this season (his 91.09 average four-seam velocity against the Dodgers was his lowest mark since April), and adjust with a more attack-oriented approach. Some days you just might not have it, and rather than try to be too fine and make things worse, you just kinda let it go and see what happens behind you. And that’s perfectly fine.
Especially when it’s clearly being done on purpose: “Now I’m relying a lot more on my defense,” Lester said of how he’s pitching this year compared to his 2016 Cy Young campaign. “In ’16, I had a lot better stuff, consistently better stuff. I’ve had starts this year where I’ve felt really good physically, been able to repeat and do the things I’ve done in the past. But obviously, I’ve thrown a lot of baseballs. There’s some wear and tear there. I’m not going to be the same pitcher I was even last year or two years ago. We’re making adjustments. We’re figuring out new ways to get guys out.”
The good news is that if Lester’s new approach is truly about allowing more balls in play and relying on his defense, he’s picked the right team to do it. As a unit, the Cubs are the best defensive group in baseball this season and might only get better if Jason Heyward and Albert Almora continue to earn more playing time as their bats come around.
And if you really think about it, there are almost no weak spots ANYWHERE.
At first base, you have Gold Glover Anthony Rizzo, up the middle, Addison Russell and Javier Baez are two of the most impressive defenders in baseball. Kris Bryant is perfectly fine, if not above average at third base, Albert Almora and Jason Heyward are human highlight reels, and Willson Contreras is the best defensive catcher in baseball.
MAYBE you can convince me that Kyle Schwarber isn’t as good as the advanced defensive metrics paint him, but he’s not the only one who players there, and the Cubs’ 2.1 Def score in left field ranks fourth in MLB and second in the NL.
So, Lester, if that velocity and/or stuff continues to elude you, go ahead and fire it in there. Force the bats to do something with it. Most of the time it won’t work out as well as it did yesterday, but you’ve got a gold-plated defense behind you. They’ll make it work.