Waiting for Jon Lester’s imminent demise is a fool’s game
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Every year since Jon Lester’s first season with the Cubs, I’ve thought that he was going to fall apart. I’ve thought that age was about to catch up with him or that hitters were about to catch on to whatever he was throwing to them.
Every single year.
I should probably stop with that.
Something eventually will do in the 35-year-old left-hander, because that’s how life works. But it would be foolish to think that life finally will intrude this season or the next one or the …
Lester is not a rock star. He’s a rock. Manager Joe Maddon already has named him the Cubs’ Opening Day starter against the Rangers. It’s a nod not only to his veteran status but to his consistency. In the last 11 seasons, he has started 32 games seven times, 33 games three times and 31 games one time.
His 91-mph fastball is an idling car in an era in which every pitcher seems to be exceeding the speed limit. He shouldn’t be doing this. But he went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA last season and was an All-Star.
The numbers within the numbers sneer at Lester. Here’s FanGraphs’ poetic take on the soul of the man:
“His batted-ball profile has changed since his first full season with the Cubs, with his ground-ball percentage dropping each season (49 to 47 to 46 to 38) with his home-run rate, unsurprisingly, heading the other way (.7 HR/9 to 0.9 to 1.3 to 1.2).”
I understand what the numbers are saying. They’re saying what I’ve been thinking since he went 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA in 2015: He’s going to hit the wall soon. And yet, here he is, still standing. Still putting the ball where he wants to most of the time. Still winning games. Still making people shake their heads.
FanGraphs has this grumpy advice for fantasy-baseball enthusiasts in 2019: “Lester’s core skills have been trending down for years, but some luck has kept up his fantasy value. Don’t be the owner holding him when the bottom falls completely out.’’
Maybe this is why Lester has such little use for analytics. They call it “luck.” He calls it “pitching.’’
“There are people who have nothing better to do and overanalyze things,” he said during a stretch last year when he struggled to strike out batters. “I’m a believer in: Sit back and enjoy the game. I’ve given up my share of bloop singles and doubles. It doesn’t matter what the exit velocity is. I’ve gotten my fair share of outs on balls hit right on the screws at somebody. That’s part of pitching.
“I’m not worried about missing bats, I’m worried about not walking people. I need to get back to ground zero on that. I would rather a guy square a ball up and get a base hit than walk him. I’m not too concerned about all the analytics BS. I’m worried about what my mechanical fix needs to be before my next start.”
Here’s a number that matters: Lester throws five pitches — a four-seam fastball, a cutter, a curve, a changeup and a sinker. How he uses them is what matters. He has mixed them up enough to have the fifth-highest winning percentage (.644) among active pitchers with more than 1,000 innings. A product of being on good teams? If so, it also applies to Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, David Price and Stephen Strasburg, the pitchers ahead of him on the list.
It’s easy to cast Lester as out of touch. He’s not big on sabermetrics, and he’s not big on theatrics, unless someone tries to test his shaky throws to first base. He’s not the darling of millennials. Whatever is on top of his head is the exact opposite of the flowing locks atop Bryce Harper’s head.
Flair is for somebody else. Lester likes pitching, golf and hunting. If you bought him a camo golf shirt with a Cubs logo on it, he’d probably be in heaven. But he knows how to pitch. Everything else is numerical commentary.
His Fielding Independent Pitching stat last season was 4.39, his worst since 2007. Ask him if he cares.
“I don’t care if it’s hit to the warning track or someone makes a diving catch,’’ he said recently. “An out is an out. I’m sure you can go back to Hall of Fame pitchers and break down barrel rates and hard contact and FIPs, and all that other stuff, but at the end of the year 18-6 with a [3.32 ERA] is still pretty good.”
That was last season. What about this season? Always the doubts.
One of these years, someone will be right about Lester and his imminent demise. But it won’t be this season or the next one or the …