By putting up two runs behind him on Saturday night, the Cubs provided Jon Lester with more support than they had since May 22nd, a span that stretched 9 games. Over the course of those starts, Lester’s offense had scratched out a grand total of 3 runs in the innings during which he was pitching. Even if you include the bookend games against the D-backs and Braves, the Cubs have provided Lester with 7 runs over his last 11 starts, or 69 (nice!) innings.
So, basically, that’s a single tally for every 10 or so innings the man works. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t necessarily assume the guy would throw a shutout each time out. But for $155 million, he should do it more often, amirite? Well, he did last night in Atlanta, taking a no-hitter into the 8th (thanks to a scoring change that turned Nick Markakis’s 1st-inning single to an error) before having it broken up by that guy Michael Barrett punched in the face that one time.
But the ugly 5-8 record is what most people are going to see first, and that shallow observation is going to prevent them from seeing that this guy actually has a really nice personality. Still, many see the big contract and the fact that Lester’s win in Atlanta was his first since May 22nd — which was, not coincidentally, the last time the Cubs gave him more than two runs — and they see a guy who’s not living up to expectations.
We can say all we want about not buying into the stilted and
vindictive bitter click-baiterrific unrealistic storylines promulgated by some of the local and national media, but sewage is going to poison the water even if you aren’t drinking it yourself. And when you keep pumping that crap out day after day, chances are good that it’ll seep into the general consciousness.
$155 million no-hit watch into 7th inning here in Atlanta.
— Gordon Wittenmyer (@GDubMLB) July 19, 2015
Sure, I engage in plenty of little digs against this team, but I feel as though I’ve established a firm base in sarcasm. My shenanigans are cheeky and fun, but his are cruel and tragic. Wittenmyer’s timeline did appear to track further away from asininity as the game closed out, but it’s little stuff like the tweet above that — from what I can tell — further undermine just how good Jon Lester has really been.
Through 19 starts, the Cubs have given Lester 4 or more runs three times, all of which came in a three-game stretch in May against the Cardinals, Mets, and Pirates that completed a four-game winning streak for the big lefty. Oh, the first game of that quartet? Just a 1-0 shutout victory over the Brewers. Saturday’s victory over the Braves was the 3rd time in the last four games that Lester has not allowed an earned run and it was the 9th time this season that he’s allowed 1 or zero.
Sure, he’s been a little inconsistent and has soiled the bed a few times, but Lester has only allowed 4 or more earned runs on five occasions thus far. By comparison, Clayton Kershaw — the best lefty in the game — has allowed 4 or more earned runs three times and has held opponents to 1 or zero eight times. But you guys don’t care about Clayton Kershaw and esoteric comparative numbers, you want results for the Cubs. And many of you probably don’t feel Lester has done that thus far.
You’re right to demand better performance from the “ace” of the staff though. After all, Theo Epstein has gone on record as saying that this team means to pay for future performance rather than past success, right? Well, let’s take a look at that. Here in 2015, Lester has posted a 3.37 ERA (career 3.57), 3.06 FIP (3.55), 3.11 xFIP (3.63), 1.21 WHIP (1.27), and .243 batting average against (.245). He’s also putting up 8.78 K/9 (8.26), 2.37 BB/9 (3.03), and allowing .76 HR/9 (.81). In the bright light of statistical fact, Jon Lester is better than he’s been in the past.
Of course, those numbers don’t look quite so good as last year, but that was the best season of Lester’s career and stands out amongst the rest of his seasons as a bit aberrant. But that doesn’t mean he’s not as good as what we thought; far from it. What it means is that the Cubs got what they thought they were getting. And it looks as though Lester is getting better, or at least more consistent, as the season wears on. We can complain all we want about ups and downs early on, but I’ll take that all day if it means those wrinkles are ironed out by late summer.
When I used the word “ace” earlier, it wasn’t done derogatorily, but rather to indicate that that’s why the Cubs signed Lester. It’s clear that Jake Arrieta is the best pitcher on this staff, but it’s utterly pointless to argue Lester’s value relative to Arrieta. Rather, we need to simply consider the fact that both of these pitchers are paired at the top of the rotation, with Jason Hammel as a more-than-acceptable number 3.
I’d be willing to bet that if I stripped away the name and the salary figures and showed you just the stats, you’d be tickled to death to have Lester on this team. He’s 21st in the NL in ERA (Hammel 12th, Arrieta 8th), 12th in FIP (Hammel 11th, Arrieta 3rd), and 14th in K/9 (Arrieta 11th, Hammel 10th). So please save me the talk about the Cubs not getting a return on their big investment; at the end of the day, that was cost of doing business and it solidified the top of this rotation.
If — and this has become a bigger if than I’d like to admit — this team can get its act together offensively, it will absolutely be a force with which to be reckoned as the season wears on. And with Kyle Hendricks looking as if he’s regained last year’s form, not to mention the possibility of a 5th starter, there’s reason to believe the Cubs have their best baseball ahead of them. That’s not looking through rose-colored glasses either, but simply seeing that they’ve actually been underperforming from an offensive standpoint.
Huh, if only they had a catcher who could hit. Just kidding, I actually like David Ross when he’s used in small doses as laid out in the manufacturer’s recommendations. But with Kyle Schwarber back and Jorge Soler healthy, the bats should start to provide more support for Lester and Co and prevent me from feeling like I need to defend the staff against unfounded criticism.
Lester can’t throw a shutout every game, but he won’t have to if the runs start coming as they should. And that, my frents, will be a happy series of days, indeed.