For his last five starts, Jon Lester wasn’t just a little off. He was getting blown up. It was one of the worst stretches of his career, and for the first time I could remember, he started talking like a guy you almost might describe as defeated. He never talks like that.
Even his manager, long-time catcher, and friend David Ross was really concerned (Cubs.com): “I was worried about him. I’ve had multiple friends call and text that they were just worried about where his head space was. … When you feel like that, and you don’t know what to do or where to go, it’s just very – ‘frustrating’ is not even the word. It just kind of beats you down, because that’s a lonely place out there on the mound when you don’t feel like you’re on top of your game, especially with the resume that Jon has and how well he’s done over his career. Getting hit around is not something he’s used to.”
But, realistically, as we discussed after his last start, the Cubs didn’t have a better rotation option than to let Lester try to sort things out. He’s done it before – maybe not quite from these depths, but it has happed. It wasn’t just about hoping for something you know is unlikely to happen.
After watching his first inning last night, I thought we were in for another rough one from Lester. He got through the frame, but he left so many pitches middle-middle that without a correction, he was gonna get knocked around again. He can’t survive with his velo/stuff at this point in his career without very fine command and execution.
… and then he totally turned things around for the next five innings. He started successfully working the ball down and on the edges more successfully, and the Brewers were befuddled. Over six scoreless innings, Lester allowed just three hits, two walks, and struck out eight. He had a better game score (75) just once last year, and just three times each in 2017 and 2018.
And it wasn’t just a lot of success on balls in play. Again, Lester struck out eight of his eighteen outs. He generated a whopping 16(!) whiffs on his 97 pitches, which is just something he doesn’t do anymore: he maxed at 16 swinging strikes last year in two starts, but each featured 110+ pitches. Indeed, his 16.5% swinging strike rate last night was the THIRD HIGHEST in *any* start of his ENTIRE Cubs career.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 12, 2020
Arguably at least as encouraging as the performance was Lester’s and Willson Contreras’s comments after the game that there were some adjustments made.
All of that said, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras expressed before Friday’s game that this was really more about Lester’s delivery than anything else.
“No, it’s not about confidence,” Contreras said. “It’s just about mechanical issues. That’s what I’m seeing.”
Contreras noted that Lester had been flying open early in his delivery and “pushing” his pitches. Ross recently pointed out that the lefty has not been burying his cutter inside to righties. Between outings, Lester focused on those areas, and more, with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and catching coach Mike Borzello.
“I just needed to figure out what was going on,” Lester said. “I don’t want to say we reinvented the wheel or we found some magical cure or anything, but the adjustments that we did make in my bullpen, the stuff just translated better.”
None of that means Lester is going to be dynamite again next time out, or that it’ll carry on into the postseason so you feel like the Cubs have at least three usable starting pitchers now. It doesn’t even mean any changes actually generated the impact. He himself is conceding that. But given just how strong the performance was, with batters struggling so badly to size him up, it does at least suggest there was some legitimacy to the adjustments and their impact.
(For whatever it’s worth on the data side, Lester’s release point was lower last night, back to where it was early in the season. For him, it’s a very, very small difference overall – he’s so precise with his mechanics, great repetition – but it does show up in the data. The point of the adjustments probably wasn’t specifically to drop the release point, mind you – instead, I’m saying maybe we can see the residue of the adjustments in that data.)
Also, again: he’s done this before. You don’t have a long, successful career like Lester’s (or successful seasons despite diminishing velocity and stuff) without making real adjustments along the way that legitimately impact performance.
And, let’s be honest: it feels a heckuva lot better to believe at this moment that Lester’s earlier performance was a COMBINATION of natural decline and mucked up execution, the latter of which he’s now addressed.