Les is More

In some ways, Jon Lester has become the forgotten man of the Cubs rotation. In 2015, after signing one of the richest contracts in Cubs history, Lester was the center of a media firestorm. A slow start, combined with his difficulty holding runners on, led to more than a few members of the media declaring Lester a bust. With baseball, as in life, the media attention quickly shifted to a different Cub. Jake Arrieta, the so-called number two starter, went on one of the most amazing second-half runs in baseball history. The CY Young winner went 12-1, with a 0.75 ERA, and a WHIP of 0.727 down the stretch. Suddenly, Arrieta had become the ace of a promising Cubs team, a role he has thrived in this season. By spring 2016, Mr. Lester became almost an afterthought, buried under the speculation of the most anticipated Cubs season since at least 2004. So you might not have noticed the fact, that Jon Lester is in the midst of perhaps his best season as major leaguer.

The Tacoma native’s great 2016 campaign actually may have begun at the end of 2015. Over six starts in September and October, Lester posted an ERA of 2.36 and a WHIP of 0.786. This season, he has raised his game to an even higher level: 1.89 ERA, and a WHIP of 0.946 in 13 starts. If these trends both hold, they would be career-best totals. Even by the less luck dependent FIP, Lester’s 2.85 would be the second lowest of his career (2014 was 2.80). Actually, the last three seasons have been the three best FIP for Jon. Last year his FIP 2.92 over performed his 3.34 ERA. So what factors have led to his All-Star quality year? To put it simply, the work of the Cubs on defense during his starts, and increased aggressiveness.

The narrative that Lester is bad defensively is definitely a tired one. The national media made sure to mention it every chance they could the first half of last year, before the Arrieta surge distracted them. The thing of it is, Lester actually is bad defensively: in 2015 he was -8 in defensive runs saved. That tied him for last among qualifying starters with the Brewers Jimmy Nelson. Why did he have such a bad DRS? Lester gave up the most steals in baseball last season with 44. Lester’s inability to throw to first on bunts and weak grounders also was an issue last season. Small-ball attacks could be successful in rattling the big guy, this season however, things have changed.  In 2016, Jon is worth 2 more runs than the average starter in defensive runs saved, good enough for a tie for third place. As far as steals go, he has allowed only 7, on pace to cut his stolen base total by half.

How is this remarkable turn around happening for the Cubs starter? It has been a total team effort for Chicago defensively. The addition of Jason Heyward, a full season of Addison Russell at shortstop, and more starts for Javy Baez have made the Cubs best defense in baseball by DRS. Lowering not just Lester’s, but every Cubs starters ERA. Specifically for Jon, however, the effort has been even more intense. David Ross is throwing more pick-offs to first than ever before with Lester on the mound. It is also hard for teams to steal bases when nobody can get on base. Since returning from injury, Baez has started in all of Lester’s starts, 10 times at third base. Whenever possible, Baez and Ross have gone all-out to field any soft ground balls on the infield, in an attempt to limit the number fielding chances for Lester. It seems to be working, Jon has yet to commit a throwing error, and he is on pace to allow the fewest hits he ever has.

As far as a more aggressive approach from the Cubs starter this season. Lester is throwing the highest percentage of four-seam fastballs since his second full MLB season, (53.6% per Fangraphs). Meanwhile, his cutter usage is down significantly, 6% over last season. He is also throwing more pitches in the strike zone this season, 47% of the time, up four percent from last year. A four-seam fastball is easier to control than a cutter, thus easier to throw in the zone. Interestingly, the number of first pitch strikes is actually down slightly from last season. Where the real change from last year has occurred is on 3-2 counts. Look at the zone profiles from this year and last year on full-counts for Lester.

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Lester 16

As you can see, Jon is throwing a significantly higher percentage of his 3-2 pitches in the zone in 2016. Thanks to this more aggressive approach, Lester has a career best strikeout to walk ratio of 5.00. The more fastball-heavy pitch repertoire is also changing the kind of contact hitters are making off him. The line-drive rate is falling, while the fly-ball percentage has gone up, leading to more soft contact in the air. The biggest increase is in the rate of infield fly-balls. After a dip in pop-ups last season, Jon is back to career norms.

As a result of these two factors, Lester has the lowest BABIP of his career (2.59). It seems likely that this rate will go up, as will a career high strand rate (85.5%). Still even with some regression, the 155-Million Dollar Man looks like he is earning every penny this season. Arrieta definitely deserves the label of ace, just don’t forget about the Cubs other ace, Jon Lester.


Filed under: Analysis, Uncategorized

Tags: Cubs, jon Lester


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  • This is really good stuff. Thanks Sean.

  • Happy Father's Day to all of the Cubs Den dads!

    Lester's pitching is definitely an asset to the team, but his inability to hold runners and field his position could really hurt when it counts most. Ross has done a good job, but the pitcher keeping runners out of scoring position (and the double-play in order) could be huge in a tight playoff game.

  • Great work, Sean. I could have spent an hour or two digging up all that info, but it's such a pleasure having it laid out in such a structured way. Thanks.

    Happy Father's Day, ya'll. Playing catch with Dad is one of life's great memories.

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    Excellent article Sean... Lester has been just as important as Arrieta this yr and deserves a spot on the AS team... The whole starting rotation could deserve a spot though

  • In reply to rynofan74:

    Although last night on Fox, the commentators stated that Addy doesn't deserve a starting position.

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    In reply to SteveBB:

    I don't know that the Cubs have the best player at ANY position.
    C: Tell you what, just put every catcher in the NL name in a hat and draw one.
    1B: Goldschmidt
    2B: Murphy is pretty darn good, but Zobrist may be as good or better
    SS: Seager or Crawford
    3B: Nolan Arenado? This one is also pretty close. Bryant is really good.
    LF: Marte? Again, Bryant may be better.
    CF: Fowler, by fWAR, is pretty certainly the best CF
    RF: Harper or Polanco.

    The Cubs actually faired better than I realized, but with the possible exception of Bryant in LF it isn't hard to find a better player at each position.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    I think Zobrist is the best second baseman in the NL. He and Murphy are comparable offensively, but Zobrist is just so dependable defensively. I'd heard about Zobrist a lot before this year, but really impressed with how good he is.

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    In reply to Cubswin09:

    I am fine with that. In all honesty Bryant deserves a start. What makes the Cubs special is they have a solid player at every spot. Not a "stars-and-scrubs" set up.

  • In reply to rynofan74:

    I'd have to say purely on merits, Russell shouldn't start, but it is the fan's vote. Several Cubs will make the ASG this year, but next year will be even easier, with Maddon managing the squad and all..

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    Addy prob does not..... Seager prob deserves it more.. Other than the SS position.... Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist and Fowler all having pretty commanding leads as of last wed

  • In reply to rynofan74:

    yeah, I had to agree with them although I am Baezed. I mean biased. :-)

  • In reply to SteveBB:


  • In reply to SteveBB:

    Haha. I think after yesterday's game, even Pirates fans have to be a little Baezed.

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    In reply to SteveBB:

    Very cool. I think after last night we all are Baezed.
    Thanks for this mornings read Sean, although my eyes kind of glazed over when trying to read the charts, just like my wife's when I try and talk to her about almost any sports story. But it's all good.
    I don't have any kids, but for all those who do a very happy Father's day.
    The best advice my father gave to me was: if you start something then finish it and always do more than you asked. Oh, he and my mother never cared who I dated, just don't date someone who is married. Good advice.

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    In reply to SteveBB:

    Nicely done!

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    In reply to rynofan74:

    Addy does not deserve to be on the All-Star team. I didn't vote for him. I voted for all the other cubs that are leading in votes except for Russell. I'm really hoping that he goes on one hell of a tear before the all-star game because it will look really bad if he's starting and he's only hittling .230 something. That use to really piss me off when Ozzie Smith kept getting voted starter over Barry Larkin. Just like Molina is leading over Lucroy who is having a much better year.

  • Excellent article. I think Lester has given the Cubs everything they were looking for when they signed him. Just because he got a big contract doesn't mean that he needed to be perfect in all areas of the game.

    It's also interesting to see how the Cubs have handled his defensive problems. Lester has clearly worked on it, but the Cubs haven't left it solely up to him. As you mentioned, they've done what they can to help it become less of an issue. There is a good life lesson there: You can complain about the weaknesses of others in your group, but that doesn't change anything. Helping a team member work through a weakness makes the whole group stronger.

  • Lester has been awesome! Question of the day yesterday on the radio: of the likely 5 NL playoff teams, who has the top 2 starting pitchers?

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    In reply to Cubswin09:

    Giants and Cubs with a tie.... BumG and Cueto or Arrieta and Lester... Tough to say... Nats and Mets right behind....

    Problem for the Mets is if they are a WC team.. they will be using Thor to win the WC game most likely and whoever plays them wont have to deal with Thor til later in the playoff series.

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    Go Rangers!! I really hope they sweep the cards today and the cubs beat the pirates. Even if they come into chicago and take 2 out 3 from the cubs they'll still be 11.5 games back if the above scenario happens. If the cardinals are sitting 15 games behind the cubs at the all-star break,it will not surprise me if they fire Matheny. Every cardinal fan i know can't stand the guy and are calling for his head.

  • In reply to Greg Simmons:

    Yea on the Pirate boards they are ragging HARD on the cheap owner too lol.

  • Interesting Greg, it tells me that the Cardinal fans are struggling with reality. I don't like Matheny at all, but I think he has done a fine job as manager, and frankly got that team to way over perform last year.

    If the fans think the manager is the problem they are likely in for a good bit more disappointment.

  • Feeling a little nostalgic for Father's Day. Hope ya'll don't mind a story...

    I was about 14-15. The elementary school I went to was a five-minute walk, and had a baseball field (fenced backstop and marks for bases) with a few hundred acres behind it. My friends and I would go there whenever we could to play ball and drink beer.

    One night, after playing till dark, we did what we'd usually do on a summer weekend: go back into the woods with a bonfire and party the rest of the night. I remember being short on coolers that night, so I "borrowed" my dad's. I can't remember how, but I remember staggering home at 5am or so, probably due to the munchies.

    Sunday afternoon, around 1, Dad woke me up and said we were going to play ball. Said he had the van loaded with ice and pop, and told me to get the cooler. I looked around in my hungover state until I realized I left his cooler in the woods.

    He told me he was messing with me. He had taken my little brother out to play earlier that morning. Little bro hit a foul ball deep in the woods, and as Dad was searching for the ball, came across our beercan-riddled campsite, and his cooler.

    Love you and miss you, Dad. Happy Father's Day, and Go Cubs!

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    That is just nice! Thank you for sharing, and a HFD to you, too, BarleyPop! I had an elementary school baseball field too that only took up a quarter of a city block in Moline, Illinois. The backstop was in the corner of the alley in the middle with a left field fence that went up and down a reasonably busy city avenue. The "long" fly balls that it only took to a slight pop fly to make it to the street as the cars drove by! As fourth through sixth graders with speedy tennis shoes on, it was often that we would have to stop our three on three baseball games to keep from getting in trouble. I think I had a hundred and fifty three homers that year, lost out to my best friend who he "said" he had at least three hundred!

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