It was July 24 and Jon Lester was hot garbage. He was a smoldering chemical spill who was pitching like the bastard lovechild of Second-Half Hammel and Travis Wood vs. righties. His season ERA of 3.09 was perfectly acceptable, but it had been 2.03 heading into July. A few brutally awful starts to open the month had really done a number on his numbers.
I’m not being hyperbolic here, either. Even with 7.2 inning, one-run effort against the Mets mixed in, Lester had outings of 1.1, 3, and 4 innings in which he allowed 8, 5, and 4 earned runs, respectively. As it turns out, that run of futility was the darkness before the dawn.
In the 11 starts he’s made since, Lester has allowed only 8 total earned runs over 75.1 innings and has struck out 73 men while walking only 13. Only twice in that stretch has he given up as many as 2 earned runs, good for a 0.96 ERA. He has also held batters to a .189 average and sports a 0.81 WHIP in that same time.
If we excise the malignant growth of that is those aforementioned starts, Lester’s season ERA drops to 1.57 over 189.1 innings pitched. That’s right, folks, 34 percent of Lester’s earned runs allowed have come from 4 percent of his innings pitched. We obviously can’t exclude those rough outings, but when we talk about accounting for the aberration of small samples, that stuff matters. And when it comes to voting for postseason awards, timing matters.
Look at Jake Arrieta, who rode an historic second half to the 2015 NL Cy Young. Lester has been nigh unhittable since his midsummer battle of the bulging ERA and could very well ride that hot streak to his own piece of hardware at the season’s end. While I’ve sided with Kyle Hendricks for a while now and I still think he’s got a place at the table, what Lester has done over the last two months might be to great to overlook.
Need more evidence? Well, I’m gonna give it to you anyway. Narrowing the view to his last eight starts, Lester is 7-0 with a 0.64 ERA and 52 strikeouts against 10 walks in 56.1 innings pitched. He has been nothing short of the shut-down artist we saw Arrieta as last season, a guy who you knew was winning every time he went out there. And not just keeping his team in the game, but absolutely dominating his opponent.
As he’s settled into this groove, I’ve noticed something else about Lester too. It could just be anecdotal evidence manifesting itself when it’s convenient for me, a kind of confirmation bias, but I haven’t see the big lefty chirping at the home plate umpire nearly as often of late. That seemed at times to be an Achilles heel for Lester, a way for him to beat himself by getting too deep into his own head and not just letting go of a bad call.
I have no doubt another year on the team has brought a greater degree of comfort, a peace of mind probably granted in no small part by the pitchers around him and the defense behind him. Lester just appears at ease and better able to repeat his delivery while maintaining his calm demeanor throughout the game.
Don’t get me wrong, the Cy Young certainly isn’t locked up by any stretch. Kyle Hendricks, not to mention a number of other candidates, could still have more to say over the next week and the voters could end up splitting their ballots six ways to Sunday. I can just see Lester’s incredible tear and longstanding respect in the baseball community carrying the day for him in the end.
Regardless of who goes home with the hardware, if it’s even a Cubs pitcher at all, it’s been a joy and a privilege to watch these guys work this season. It would have been impossible to replicate Arrieta’s 2016 masterpiece, but Lester and Hendricks have made a helluva good effort do so. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us in October.