It might only be two starts, but Jon Lester‘s early season work couldn’t be more encouraging. Scheduled for tonight’s series opener in St. Louis (the game, and potentially the series, has been postponed), the 36 year old veteran has a pristine 0.82 ERA (4.12 FIP), yielding a 1-0 record in 11 innings pitched.
Lester’s early success is clearly exaggerated, yet it suggests a bounce back campaign is quite likely. At his best he’s a borderline HOF candidate, a career 191-108 record, 3.55 ERA (3.66 FIP) and an amazing postseason career (2.51 ERA in 154 innings) to boot. Still, many questions emerged about Lester as he entered his 15th season, with diminished velocity and a pedestrian 2019 season (13-10, 4.46 ERA) leading many to believe his regression was one of permanence.
If 2020 has proven anything thus far out of Wrigleyville it’s that the Cubs have a legitimate rotation, and Lester’s revival has been at the heart of that legitimacy. What’s telling about Lester’s first two starts isn’t a continued evolution of his repertoire, or utilizing new tricks only a veteran could employ. It’s that he’s returned to the aggressive Lester of old.
The Return of the Cutter
Watching Jon pitch in 2019 didn’t feel the same. My eyes were telling me that, particularly against righties, Lester wasn’t as aggressive as we’ve seen in years past. Dissecting his starts, I found him to be especially passive with his cutter to opposite handed hitters, attempting to paint his cutter on the outside corner rather than jam righties inside with the pitch. Sure enough, the data bears this analysis true. The following are Lester’s cutter usage against right-handed hitters, from career output, to 2019, and early on in 2020:
Career Cutter Usage vs. Righties
Cutter Usage vs. Righties, 2019
Cutter Usage vs. Righties, 2020
Throughout his career, Lester used his cutter to attack righties. While it has long been his prominent secondary pitch, throwing it roughly a quarter of the time in his long career, he has relied on it evermore the last two seasons. Upping the cutter usage in 2019, and further still in 2020, we have witnessed a unique evolution with the pitch.
Righties are currently hitting just .095 against Lester’s cutter in 2020. Clearly, that won’t stand, yet we’ve enough proof to believe that Lester’s .288 BAA in 2019 to righties on the cutter was also an anomaly. For context, righties hit .231 on the pitch in his dominant 2016 campaign. Should he continue to use the pitch inside to righties, that type of result should be expected when 2020 is said and done.
Lester Still Has ‘It‘
So far, the results in 2020 have been outstanding. Aside from Lester’s pristine ERA, he has limited walks (4.8 percent) and generated weak contact (26.5 percent), leading to a puny .103 BAA and elite 0.55 WHIP. What’s curious is that Lester has found success despite a strikeout rate (11.9 percent) halved from his career output (22.2), and a ground ball rate (35.3 percent) markedly lower than his career average (46.0).
It’s hard to ignore that this is largely unsustainable. Batters have a .091 average on balls put in play against Lester, and that number will certainly level out as the season wears on (typical league average is roughly .300 on balls put in play). Still, the early season success we’ve witnessed from Lester has to be largely credited to the aggressive approach he’s rediscovered.
Lester is actually throwing his cutter at a career high percentage (35.8 in 2020, 24.5 career), and ironically, he utilized it in 2019 (34.5) more than any previous year. What’s telling, in addition to once again attacking righties inside, is that the velocity on his cutter this year (87.1 mph) hasn’t decreased from his career norm (88.6) to the extent that his fastball has (89.1 in 2020, 92.1 career). This is pure speculation, but perhaps the velocity differential between the fastball and cutter being relatively minuscule has increased the deception of the cutter, the late break on the pitch confusing righties in generating weak contact.
Per Baseball Savant, Lester’s success has to do with that weak contact generated rather than swings and misses. Currently he’s sitting in the lowest percentile generating whiffs, yet the 90th percentile in exit velocity (83 mph). His barrel percentage is down while his launch angle is up, allowing Lester to get away with surrendering more balls in the air. Should his increased fly ball rate remain he will likely begin to surrender more home runs, as his HR/FB ratio (6.3 percent) is well below his career (10.7) and certainly below league average (14 percent). Yet if he continues to suppress walks and impose weak contact, the expected increase in home runs shouldn’t erode the solid foundation he’s built after two starts.
Lester has also induced contact out of the zone at an astonishing rate. Batters are making contact on pitches out of the zone at a whopping 85 percent (league average 59.6 percent), while whiffing on just seven percent of Lester’s offerings overall (league average 24.4). This suggests Lester hasn’t simply pitched to contact (indeed, batters are swinging at his first pitch offering at an alarming 71.4 percent), it’s that he’s acknowledged he doesn’t have put away stuff yet has leaned on attacking batters anyway — rather than avoiding them as he attempted in 2019.
A renewed Lester is a huge boon for the Cubs. Perhaps it’s the impact of David Ross at the helm, perhaps Lester and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy worked to tweak his repertoire usage while returning to his strengths. Regardless, Lester appears hungry, aggressive, and fearless, and despite his age and diminishing velocity he’s setting himself up for a helluva season.
Regression will surely follow, but we’ve seen enough from the Cubs greatest free agent acquisition of all time to believe his 2020 campaign will be one to remember.
(All stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Savant)
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