Thanks to Jon Lester, the Cubs’ first-half starting pitching performance was not totally a disaster, and the overall first half for the team was rather successful. Sure, his peripherals are and were awfully troubling at times, but somehow, he managed to get the job done consistently, and that was huge for a rotation that could do anything but.
And thanks to Lester’s stellar performance yesterday – 6.0 IP, 4H, 1ER, 0BB, 7Ks – the Cubs still have a chance to split this four-game series against the Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field . Here’s a quick look back at his performance before we continue:
Lester’s performance yesterday was, in a way, emblematic of his season as a whole. At the highest level, he did some things VERY well (11 whiffs leading to 7 strikeouts, plus no walks in 6.0 innings is brilliant), leading to really fantastic results: just one earned run on a solo shot before he left the game.
But on the other hand, he continued to struggle with the quality and type of contact allowed. For the tenth time this season (in 21 starts), Lester got ground balls at a clip lower than 35%. That’s notable because the league average is 43.2% and strange because Lester’s career rate was 47% before this season. It used to be a thing he could do and this season it’s all but evaporated (38%).
Worse, Lester got soft contact just 13% of the time and hard contact 53.3% of the time with no infield pop-ups. Given that league averages for soft (18.0%) and hard (35.9%) contact are well off those marks, it’s pretty easy to understand that the D-Backs were squaring him up (and just like his formerly above-average ground ball rate, Lester has always been the type to induce a ton of weak contact and limit the hard stuff, so, even when the results are there, you get concerned).
Were the Diamondbacks really squaring him up that much? Maybe. Or maybe, as Lester may have inadvertently pointed out after the game, they were just getting a little lucky:
Lester was asked again about analytics and it was classic, "I think the perfect example was today. 42 degrees on the home run is supposedly not a home run and it went out. I already yelled at our guys in here for that."
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) July 25, 2018
Whatever is going on here, I’m starting to get the sense that we’re not seeing the whole picture. Follow me.
There’s no arguing that the Diamondbacks made a lot of hard contact yesterday – he gave up 10 batted balls at 95 mph or harder, 6 over 100 mph – but that doesn’t mean the Diamondbacks necessarily deserve credit for that. We’ve already pointed out that they swung and missed 11 times and didn’t walk once in 6.0 innings, both of which are good indicators that they weren’t seeing Lester’s stuff well. But there’s more to it than that.
Last night, Lester got Diamondbacks hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone 31% of the time. That’s above his career 29.2% rate, and well above his 2018 26.9% rate. Meanwhile, they were swinging at balls in the zone about 2 percentage points lower than they have both this season or for his career. Clearly, there was a lot of guessing going on. And it doesn’t stop there.
Even when they guessed right last night, the Diamondbacks were making contact on just 82.8% of the pitches in the zone, down from the 87% range Lester’s posted this season and for his career. That’s … actually awesome.
To wrap those thoughts up: The Diamondbacks often chose to swing at the wrong time and failed to make contact when they did guess right. As I’m sure you could surmise, Lester’s 10.7% swinging strike rate was above his season (8.3%) and career (9.5%) averages. You could make an argument, then, that some of the hard contact Lester gave up was unlucky. We don’t have a perfect set of data available to prove that kind of thing, but the bits that we can analyze do hint in that direction.
And all of this goes without mentioning that Lester’s fastball velocity was on the rise again yesterday, continuing a trend that began early in July:
We always say he’s not a guy who relies on velocity – and that’s true – but there’s really no doubting that more is better, especially when you’re close to bordering on the low-90s like Lester has at times, and especially when you can command that velocity.
So, okay … where were we?
Although it has been fair to say that Lester has gotten lucky on his results a bit in the past, I’m not sure the same can be said about yesterday’s performance, specifically. His fielding-independent pitching stats like strikeouts and walks were excellent, and that homer probably should’ve never left the yard. Meanwhile, his batted ball data, while seemingly terrible on the surface, may have been boosted by some real flukiness on the contact. And best of all, his velocity was up a tick, again, which helps explain why he deserves these peripherals and results.
And just to really button it all up, it’s worth pointing out that Lester felt a lot better about his not only his performance (because, obviously), but also his mechanics and adjustments since his blowup against St. Louis.
Although I can’t say I will ever abandon our analytically-inclined ways, there’s something poetic about how a veteran pitcher like Lester, who continues to get the results, approaches the game (Cubs.com): “Baseball is baseball. It’s been played for however long … and it’s always going to be the same. … At the end of the day, it’s about winning the baseball game, and if you’re winning the baseball game, that’s all that matters.”