With the NLDS just two days away, I’ve taken some time to look back into the overall bodies of work from the Cubs’ playoff rotation (in reverse order) of John Lackey, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks.
After comparing their numbers against the league and their former selves, we were able to see that Lackey has been well worth his contract, Arrieta had something of a split season, and Hendricks has answered every question asked about him before the year started.
There’s only one starter left in the playoff rotation, then, and it is NLDS Game One starter Jon Lester. The Cubs’ other 2016 Cy Young candidate, Lester has had a big season for Chicago and an even bigger second half. With any luck, he could even be the guy to lead the team into the history books.
But before we look ahead to the playoffs, let’s look back on his season.
In fact, let’s go back one more year for a moment, and talk about his first season with the Cubs in 2015. Although last year was Jake Arrieta’s year (because, well, you know), Jon Lester quietly put together one of the finest and most valuable seasons from a Cubs starter in 20 years. In fact, his peripherals from 2015 were actually a bit stronger than his peripherals this season, even thought the results were a lot better this year (thanks defense!).
But a gain here and a loss there isn’t as meaningful for a guy like Jon Lester, because he pretty much oozes overall consistency. In fact, that’s probably one of the main drivers for his presence in Chicago in the first place.
Before Jason Heyward’s $184 million deal, you’ll recall, Lester’s 6 year/$155 million contract was the Cubs’ largest free agent commitment in history. Why were the Cubs comfortable handing out such a large contract to a pitcher? Well, on the surface they needed a top of the rotation starter and Lester was both available and familiar, but more accurately, I suspect, his consistency and the likelihood of graceful aging is what drew the Cubs most strongly.
Consider, since his first full season at the Major League level in 2008, Lester has surpassed the 200 inning mark in eight out of his nine seasons. In the one year he failed to reach 200 IP (2011), he finished with 191.2 innings and made one fewer start … so, yeah: at a minimum, he’s a workhorse. But when you also consider the fact that he’s been worth an average of 4.3 fWAR in each of those seasons, you’ll agree that he’s been much more than that.
But we know that just because a pitcher has been good, doesn’t necessarily he will continue to be good, right? Right, but in Lester’s case, he seems like a fairly good bet (the Cubs clearly thought so). Consider for a moment, the consistency in his fastball velocities.
Jon Lester’s Fastball Velocity by Year:
- 2007: 91.8 MPH
- 2008: 91.8 MPH
- 2009: 93.5 MPH
- 2010: 93.5 MPH
- 2011: 92.6 MPH
- 2012: 92.0 MPH
- 2013: 92.4 MPH
- 2014: 91.5 MPH
- 2015: 92.0 MPH
- 2016: 92.0 MPH
With a career average fastball velocity of 92.3 MPH, you’ll note that Lester’s only two seasons with the Cubs are right where they should be. But if this still feels more like an argument towards his consistency rather than his ability to continue performing well going forward, stick with me for a second.
One of the biggest concerns (other than injury) with signing a free agent pitcher to a long-term commitment is that he’ll lose velocity as he ages, and thus be rendered incapable of getting batters out at a level consistent with his early career performance. Lester, in my opinion, beats that rap in two distinct ways.
First, it appears that Lester has already experienced that velocity drop after the 2011 season, and has since gone on to post more than 20 fWAR in the five years that followed. If that was the main velocity drop of his career, the Cubs won’t have anything to worry about.
But if it’s not and there is another noticeable drop in velocity over the next few years, he’ll be saved by point number 2 …. Which is that he’s never been an extremely velocity pitcher anyway. That means that he’s had to build his entire career without leaning solely on the ability to blow guys away with a fastball … and he has, to great success. If he’s never had to rely on plus velocity to get him out of jams in the past, he won’t have to worry about it even if he loses another mile per hour or two in the future.
Back to 2016.
During the regular season, Jon Lester has was able to maintain his velocity and stay healthy. Given that those have been two of the primary drivers of his career success, you should be unsurprised to see his name at the top of the leaderboards.
Jon Lester in 2016, By the Numbers (NL, MLB):
- Innings Pitched: 202.2 (6th, 13th)
- ERA: 2.44 (2nd, 2nd)
- FIP: 3.41 (7th, 9th)
- xFIP: 3.47 (6th, 9th)
- K-rate: 24.8% (8th, 15th)
- BB-rate: 6.5% (13th, 27th)
- AVG Against: .209 (4th, 6th)
- fWAR: 4.3 (7th, 14th)
Like Kyle Hendricks before him, Jon Lester is quite clearly one of the top ten pitchers in the National League, and one of the top 15 pitchers in all of baseball. He threw among the most innings (200+), got the second best results (2.44 ERA) and even had among the strongest peripherals to support his performance. You really couldn’t have asked for anything more from Lester (although, his 1.76 ERA through 92.0 second-half innings in 2016 was a nice bonus). The Cubs are fortunate to have him starting Game One of the NLDS on Friday.
In fact, they’re fortunate to have him in general.
The Chicago Cubs paid Jon Lester $15 million in 2015 and $20 million in 2016 (so, then, $35 million total in salary), but he’s been worth roughly 9.3 fWAR during his career with the Cubs so far. If you use a simple $8 million per win above replacement calculation, it’s easy to see how the Cubs have come out on top:
$8 million (per WAR) x 9.3 WAR = $74.4 million value
Even if you tack on the entirety of his $30 million signing bonus (of which only $15 million has actually been paid so far), the Cubs are still getting a ton of surplus value. Add in what we now know about his consistency and likelihood of graceful aging, and it’s all gravy.
Lester has had a fantastic overall career, and his time with the Cubs has been no different. The last thing left for him to do is take this team all the way. And that all begins Friday.