Last night was the final start of the 2019 season for Cubs lefty Jon Lester, and although it resulted in a loss for the team, it was a pretty good one for him, overall: 6.0 IP, 8H, 2ER, 0BB, 4Ks. Sure it came against a long-eliminated Pirates squad with the literal worst offensive splits against left-handed pitchers throughout MLB this season …
… But, hey! They’re big leaguers, and Big Jon still got them out. And in fact, by Game Score (58, 10th), that was one of Lester’s top-10 starts of the season.
All told, Lester will put a pin in this season with 31 starts for the Cubs, marking the first time he hasn’t completed a full 32-game set since pitching for the Boston Red Sox back in 2011. In fact, this will also be the first time he hasn’t thrown at least 180.0 innings since becoming a full-time starter back in 2008.
But still … another 30+ start season is always welcome, especially from a 35-year-old. Indeed, Lester remains elite in terms of appearances for more than a decade:
Total Starts 2008-Present:
- Justin Verlander: 388 starts
- Jon Lester: 385
- Zack Greinke: 376
- Cole Hamels: 369
- Max Scherzer: 356
- James Shields: 353
- Felix Hernadez: 344
- Clayton Kershaw: 343
- CC Sabathia: 341
- Rick Porcello: 339
Let me ask you … Recognize any of the names on that list?
Clearly, Lester has stayed on the mound as much as *almost anybody* throughout his lengthy career, and, as it turns out, his 44.9 WAR from 2008-today ranks 6th in MLB (just ahead of Cole Hamels, Chris Sale, and David Price). So he’s been healthy and valuable for a good, long while now. Maybe that’s news to nobody, but I think it’s important to remember, especially as Lester approaches what seems to be the beginning of the end of his career – at least as anything close to a mid-to-top of the rotation starter.
Financial Aside (Updated):
Unlike Ben Zobrist, Lester still has another season under contract with the Chicago Cubs in 2020 (for $15M in base-salary plus a $10M deferred signing bonus to be paid out on 9/15/2020), with a $25M option/$10M buyout in 2021.
So, in reality, Lester will cost the Cubs $25M in real-dollars next season, which is exactly what he cost this season ($22.5M in base salary plus a $2.5M bonus), but that comes with a wrinkle: the $10M buyout for 2021. If the Cubs buy Lester out for $10M after next season, that’ll count towards the 2020 budget forLuxury Tax purposes. That means that Lester could have an AAV hit of $35M next year.
I missed the signing bonus on the initial release of this post. Thanks to the comment section for pointing it out.
But let’s get back to this season.
As I’ve already pointed out, Lester made fewer starts and reached a lower IP threshold than he has in years, but he still managed to be a generally valuable player with 2.8 fWAR overall. But to put a finer, more accurate point on that, Lester was basically average this season – particularly when you blend the actual results with the underlying peripherals.
With a 4.46 ERA for the season (i.e. the results side of the ledger), Jon Lester was roughly 1% worse than the league-average starting pitcher. If that seems elevated, just consider the offensive environment in which we occupy. The guy was average.
By his 4.26 FIP (an underlying peripheral statistic meant to strip away events out of his control), Lester was about 4% better than the league average pitcher. So, again: when you blend the actual results of his season with the performance he put forth, it’s easy to see that Lester was just about a league average starter.
Which is perfectly fine!
At this point in his career, and given everything he delivered in his first two seasons with the Cubs (9.1 fWAR, two NLCS appearances, a World Series win, and a Cy Young runner-up finish in 2016), Lester has more than covered his contract. In fact, we had that argument a long time ago and it’s only gotten more true since then.
But that also means the Cubs should prepare accordingly in 2020.
Lester was basically a back-of-the-rotation starter this season (which, again, was totally acceptable) at age 35. He will be one year older next year with another 170+ innings on his arm. Expecting him to take any sort of prolonged step-forward, while possible, would be a fool’s errand. Do I expect him to have singularly great moments next year? Absolutely! Guys like him (former aces) always do. But I’d expect – at best – another league average season in both the results and peripherals departments.
So long as the Cubs rest *those* expectations on him in 2020 – and nothing more – he’ll likely deliver yet another useful season as a Chicago Cubs pitcher at the back of the rotation. And at this point, what more could anyone ask?