In the first half of the season – while Yu Darvish was out, Tyler Chatwood was getting along by the skin of his teeth, and Kyle Hendricks/Jose Quintana were enjoying the amusement park (a.k.a. riding the roller coaster (a.k.a. bouncing between good and terrible starts (a.k.a. it wasn’t actually enjoyable))) – Jon Lester strung together enough seemingly dominant performances to build an All-Star campaign.
Of course, I say seemingly dominant, because, as we were concerned along the way, his shaky peripherals simply did not match the All-Star results. Worse, unlike other times we’ve seen pitchers outperform their peripherals for prolonged stretches, Lester’s numbers didn’t quite contain any secret glimmers of hope (for example, if his BABIP was unusually low, but he was also getting a ton of soft contact, or something along those lines). To be fair, we suspected there may have been some veteran craftiness baked in there – some way he was pitching to the conditions and his skillset, and, sure, that probably does support some of his good results when they happen despite the peripherals.
But the early-season disconnect was so strong that it seemed like it could not last forever to that extent, and, unfortunately, lately, it may have caught up to Lester.
Yesterday, Jon Lester lasted just 5.0 innings, allowing 5 earned runs on 8 hits including 2 homers. Worse, he got just four swinging strikes, walked 2 batters, and struck out just 1. By game score, yesterday’s no-decision was his second worst start of the year (23). That’s a bad start any day of the week, but a particularly rough one at home against the second worst offense in the entire league.
Lester wasn’t going to blame it on the wind, either.
“It’s a Wrigley day, and you’ve got to deal with it,” said Lester after the game, per Cubs.com. “It didn’t seem to affect their guy too much, but at the end of the day, I have to do a better job of keeping our team close enough to strike and minimize some damage. I wasn’t able to do that.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t really a one-time thing for Lester – at least not this year. Although the poor peripherals have been around all season, the results are finally catching up … and the peripherals are getting even worse. Consider, for a moment, just the numbers over his past seven starts (since July 1): 35.2 IP, 6.81 ERA, 6.67 FIP. I bet you didn’t think it was that bad, did you? During this stretch, Lester has struck out just 15.6% of the batters he’s faced while walking 11.4%.
For the season, then, Lester’s 9.3% walk rate ranks among the bottom 20 in baseball. Meanwhile, his season-long 18.2% strikeout rate is among the bottom 15 (one spot behind Jake Arrieta, as it turns out). And while his 3.44 ERA remains among the top 25 in the league, his 4.83 FIP ranks just outside the bottom ten of qualified pitchers.
Much of the good results, then, have likely come from some very good luck. Among the signals: .265 BABIP (career .296), 80.2% strand rate (career 75.1%).
What’s more worrisome than the fact of a .265 BABIP and 80.2% strand rate is that Lester hasn’t earned those lucky numbers. If you’re going to run an unusually low BABIP, it’s usually because you’re getting a good amount of soft contact and not giving up very much hard contact. And as it turns out, that’s actually something Lester has been very good at throughout his career. But his 15.6% his soft-contact rate this year stands in stark contrast to the 20.5% average he’s posted overall since joining the Cubs. Ditto his 33.7% hard contact (28.0% with the Cubs before 2018).
As for the strand rate, if you want something that high, you usually have to either get a lot of strikeouts (we already know that’s not the case) or a lot of soft contact on the ground (doesn’t score runners, generates double plays), but Lester’s 37.6% ground ball rate this season is not just 12th lowest in all of baseball (at a time when keeping the ball on the ground is as important as ever) it’s also a full ten percentage points lower than his average with the Cubs before this season.
In just about every way possible (type of contact, quality of contact, K/BB ratio, etc.), Jon Lester is not posting a season remotely like the guy he was in the past. That means both his deep-cut peripherals and first-level peripherals don’t look good, and largely explains why the ERA is bouncing back big time. For a now-34-year-old pitcher who has lost a good bit of velocity the last few years, this is not abnormal.
We might’ve expected this reckoning to come all season, but given the state of the rotation right now, let’s just hope Cole Hamels is for real, Yu Darvish comes back soon, and Hendricks, Quintana, and Mike Montgomery can hold the line.
To be sure, Jon Lester can still be a useful pitcher for the Cubs, and he’s not necessarily going to continue pitch as poorly in August and September as he did in July. But he’s also probably no longer a guy you can count on to be the sole bright spot in a rotation that desperately needs several.