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Cubs Jon Lester: decline of 200-inning pitchers ‘terrible for the game’

Jon Lester has been the Cubs' best pitcher from the start of the 2018 season. / John Antonoff photo

MESA, Ariz. – When Cubs manager Joe Maddon says pitcher Jon Lester is more vocal this spring than any of his first three seasons with the Cubs, it comes without a trace of Maddonistic exaggeration or misdirection.

Already this spring, Lester has gone off on major league owners for freezing the recent free agent market and blasted MLB’s efforts to speed up pace of play with such schemes as limiting visits to the mound by players and staff.

But if you really want to fire him up, ask him whether there’s anything positive about the fact that 200-inning pitchers are starting to look like an endangered species and whether he thinks it’s a trend that will continue.

“I hope not,” he said. “I think it’s terrible for the game. That puts too much pressure on your bullpen. That means you’re using them more. The bad things about those guys, man, is they’re on call every night. There’s a time and a place [for leaning on the bullpen], and the playoffs are a different animal and you throw that out the window. But what you do in the playoffs is not what you do in the seasons.”

Last year, for only the second time in his 10 full seasons in the majors, Lester fell short of 200 innings pitched, finishing with 180 2/3, mostly because of a lat injury that landed him on the DL for two weeks – and it still burns in his gut.

“I feel like I let the team down,” he said.

But Lester is actually a rare pitcher in the game today, even with last year’s workload blip, especially if he returns to 200-inning form this year.

Only 15 pitchers reached the 200-inning mark each of the last two seasons as teams have emphasized bloated bullpens, pitch limits and cautious approaches with starters’ arms.

That’s down from the 28 in 2015, 34 the year before that and 36 the year before that – numbers that also are historically low.

As recently as 2010 45 pitchers reached that mark – 50 as recently as 2005.

And the 15 marks the lowest number of 200-inning pitchers in a season in the majors since Greg Maddux was the only one to reach 200 during a strike-shortened 1994 season in which that strike in early August ended his season at 25 starts.

“The season’s too long to rely on your starters every nigh to go give, maybe six,” Lester said. “It’s too many outs for those [bullpen] guys to get to have them fresh and ready to go by the playoffs. I feel like starters need to be more accountable and go deeper into games.

“Whether people are going to agree with me or not in this new age of the game. … I think everything goes in cycles, and I think it’ll all come back. I just don’t think out of a No. 1 or a No. 2 guy, 170 or 180 innings is enough.”

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