Jon Lester has had a rough season. You can play around with the narrative at the margins all you’d like, but, at bottom, you will keep coming back to the reality that it has been a rough season.
Even when the results were good enough in the first-half of the year to warrant an All-Star selection, we knew the numbers behind the numbers were bad. Very bad, even. So bad, in fact, that it wasn’t entirely shocking to see him post a 8.01 ERA (7.15 FIP) through eight starts from July 1st to August 11th.
At the same time, it’s not as if Jon Lester had totally forgotten how to pitch or was seriously injured. The ability was still in there, he simply wasn’t able to execute his pitches in the moments he needed them the most.
Whether that will continue to be the case for more starts than not here in the rest of 2018, it was certainly the case that last night, dude was executing the hell out of his pitches. It was just one start, so we won’t make any claims that “Jon Lester is back” or whatever. But for at least one night, Jon Lester was BIG JON LESTER:
Jon Lester turns in six shutout frames.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 17, 2018
By the time his night was over, Jon Lester’s final line was a thing of beauty: 6.0 IP, 5H, 0ER, 0BB, 8Ks. So let’s take a closer look.
According to Brooks Baseball, he wasn’t working with exceptionally high velocity last night (in fact, he was slightly below his season-average on the four-seamer), but Lester still managed to snag four whiffs with that pitch plus another five between his curveball (2) and cutter (3). His 9.8% whiff rate was notably higher than his season average (8.4%) and turned into a ton of strikeouts.
Wasn’t that nice to see? Lester had run an unusually low 18.4% strikeout rate before last night, which is WAY off his career 23.7% mark, but last night he struck out 38.7% of the batters he faced, improving that 18.4% t0 19.1% in a single evening in August.
And the same kind of improvement goes for his walk rate.
After allowing free passes far more this season (9.1%) than he has for his career (7.8%), Lester didn’t walk a single batter, and dropped his 2018 rate down to 8.8%. With such little time left in the season, it’s difficult to imagine his K-rate or BB-rate ending up somewhere good, but last night, he was nails, and it was extremely refreshing to see.
Joe Maddon knows what’s up (Cubs.com): “[Watching] from the side, I know it’s Jon Lester. I’ve watched him a lot. But all of a sudden, it was like Jon Lester. He had this way about him today that was not going to be denied. That’s what I saw. He was locked in, he’d had enough, and he went back to pitching like Jon’s capable of pitching.”
For what it’s worth, Lester credited his four-seamer and cutter for the success last night, admitting that sometimes it’s too easy to forget what’s made him succeed in the first place. Here’s to him not forgetting again.
BUT WE’RE NOT DONE YET (or a more interesting segue).
Although the improvement in the command and sudden onset of strikeouts was very good to see (especially against a Pirates team with the 6th lowest K-rate in MLB), I was even more encouraged by the batted ball data.
Before this season, Lester had been very good at keeping the ball on the ground, inducing a ton of weak contact, and limiting the hard stuff. In fact, he’s been one of the best. But this season, he had trailed off quite a bit … that is, until last night:
His ground ball rate didn’t rebound completely, but it did make an improvement. More importantly, his fly ball rate dropped CONSIDERABLY and on top of that (but not shown), his infield fly ball rate exploded to 33.3%. Usually, when a pitcher’s IFFB% jumps on any given night, it indicates that the other team had some serious trouble squaring him up. Which, of course, brings us to the red circle … just look at those numbers.
Lester DOUBLED the amount of soft contact he usually gets last night while almost completely eliminating all hard contact. THIS is the Jon Lester we know. The strikeouts are great and having command is always important, but when he was at his best, Lester was not allowing batters to square him up. That’s the BIG JON LESTER we all love and that’s the one we got last night.
Now if he could just do it again, and again, and another time, and a few times in October, that’d be great.