Earlier this season, Jon Lester was named to the fifth All-Star team of his career, and with a 12-2 record and a 2.58 ERA in the first half, how could anyone debate it?
Sure, the won/loss “stat” and even something as seemingly crucial as ERA do a pretty terrible job of predicting future performance (we’d be the first to tell you that), but they can do a good job of describing what has actually happened in the past. So when it comes to contracts and statistical projections, you can all but throw those numbers away. But when it comes to awards and recognition, I say “Go to town” on the traditional stuff.
At the end of the first half, Jon Lester’s 2.58 ERA is the 11th best mark in the Majors and his 12 wins are tied for second most. That’s deserving of praise. That’s helped the Cubs win a lot of games. That’s an All-star first-hald. And that’s not even close to the entire story.
Although Lester’s ERA ranks among baseball’s best, his 4.34 FIP is 1.76 runs higher and just barely sneaks into the top 50 overall. For a little reference, no one ahead of Lester on the ERA leaderboard has an FIP higher than him and only three players in the top 50 have been worse. Given that FIP is meant to exclusively measure the events a pitcher has the most control over, it’s fair to say Lester has been pretty lucky to get the results he’s gotten. In fact, even he would tell you that: “I’ve been fortunate,” Lester said recently via Cubs.com. “I’ve been on the good side of the baseball gods in the first half. I will definitely take that.”
Now, to be fair Lester isn’t just closing his eyes and seeing what happens. There’s reason to believe he’s earning some of these results the old fashioned way – as many pitchers who consistently outperform their peripherals do. After all, Lester outperformed his peripherals by similarly wide margins in 2016 (2.44 ERA, 3.41 FIP), 2014 (2.46 ERA, 2.80 FIP), 2011 (3.47 ERA, 3.83 FIP), 2008 (3.21 ERA, 3.64 FIP), and 2007 (4.57 ERA, 5.24 FIP). Obviously the extent of the difference is largest this season, but the larger point is that he’s done this before.
And as a veteran who’s 1) aware of the insanely impressive defense lining up behind him and 2) adjusting to life as an older pitcher with a little less velocity, there’s plenty of anecdotal reasons to believe this wasn’t a happy accident either. And, again, Lester would tell you the same thing: “I feel there’s been some games when I’ve thrown the ball really well and games when I haven’t, and still had some good fortune along the way,” Lester said.
Of course, the other advantage Lester has enjoyed is a dominant bullpen. He continued on in his comments to compliment the relievers who’ve come in and cleaned up whatever mess he’s left on the bases, ensuring his ERA remains pristine in the process. As Lester puts it, “That can really change a starting pitcher’s season.”
Now it’s not all peachy though. In the past, when Lester has outperformed his peripherals, it’s been because some of his other batted ball numbers were insanely good. In 2016, for example, Lester’s ERA (2.44) was nearly a full run worse than his FIP (3.41), but his 46.9% ground ball rate was higher than his career average and his 26.8% hard-hit rate was the sixth lowest mark in all of baseball. But this season, Lester’s 38.2% ground ball rate and 15.4% soft-hit rate are the lowest of his career while his 33.2% hard-hit rate is the highest of his career. While none of those numbers are terrible in isolation, they’re certainly worthy of actual results closer to the above-average 4.34 FIP he’s posted this season.
Basically, what I’m saying is Lester has gotten excellent results in the first half and that’s awesome. His peripherals don’t really support those results, but that’s nothing new (to baseball or to Lester). However, unlike other seasons where he’s earned those results, Lester’s 2018 season has generated a little more concern under the hood than usual. It’s OK to believe that some of the difference can be explained away by an astonishingly good defense and some veteran craftiness, but some of it, as Lester points out himself, has been good old fashioned luck.
So in the end, it’s easy to agree with Lester’s own assessment: “I’m happy with where I’m at, I’m happy with the break and look forward to the break and come back and be ready to go.” Hopefully, then, he can continue to get lucky and maybe even tighten things up under the hood.