Jon Lester’s scoreless start Sunday wasn’t a sign that he’s suddenly regained his ace form, just like giving up five runs in his first start didn’t mean he needed to be put out to pasture. Among various other factors, all he was trying to do in that debut was establish the fastball and see how his body responded. That’s why he came away pleased in spite of the ugly box score.
In typical Lester fashion, he almost seemed more perturbed answering questions about a second effort in which he struck out four with no walks and just two hits allowed. Not that he was upset with the performance or the media scrum, just that he’s seen and done far too much to really care much about an early spring training appearance.
“Yeah, today was a lot better,” Lester told reporters. “Just was kinda able to take what we worked on prior to last game and then into my bullpen and just kinda got it into a higher-intensity mode. When you get a little adrenaline and you’re facing guys you’re trying to get out, being able to control that and stay within it, was a lot better today and it showed with just how crisp my pitches were today compared to the other day.”
Note that little qualifier there when he talked about facing guys he was trying to get out, which wasn’t entirely the case earlier. I’m sure some people will take that the wrong way, but he’s really just saying that retiring batters wasn’t necessarily the priority the first time and the results didn’t matter as much as how he felt. It also means not really having to deal with leveraging or suppressing the rush that comes from competition.
Sunday saw Lester working smoothly and getting outs in the strategic fashion that has become his calling card as he’s gotten older. He’s not going to blow anyone away these days, so he’s got to be much more calculated when it comes to what he’s throwing. More than that, it’s a matter of where he’s throwing.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) March 1, 2020
“I always try to pitch to getting a guy out as quick as I can,” Lester explained. “I think there’s two different ways of pitching to contact, as far as when you have stuff to just throw it more halves or more middle as opposed to when you don’t have the 95s anymore, the 97s to where you have to be in quadrants.
“I’m still pitching to contact, I just want weaker contact. But I’m still trying to pitch to those quadrants as much as I can because I’m not going to get away with the half-balls as much as I used to.”
In the event that you’re not picking up on some of the nomenclature, he’s just talking about location and his decreased margin for error. When you’re still at your peak, you can get by working inside-outside or high-low. But once you can no longer overpower hitters as easily, it’s a matter of being much more deliberate about the portions of the zone in which you’re working to each opponent.
“It’s more strategic as opposed to just ‘Here it is and hit,” Lester continued. “So we’ll just make adjustments as we go and there’ll be teams that don’t swing and miss a lot and don’t strike out a lot that…maybe you spend a little more time around the plate with those guys and you get ’em swinging early and maybe you can expand after that.”
Executing on that approach is going to be of the utmost importance for Lester in what might be his last season in Chicago, if not MLB in general. He has failed to threaten 200 innings in each of his last three seasons and, despite a slight uptick in strikeout and swinging strike rates last season, he can’t go out there trying to miss bats every time. Getting more of that weak contact means quicker outs and longer outings, even if the Ks drop as a result.
Lester doesn’t figure to do anything worthy of Cy Young consideration this season, but Sunday showed that he’s still got the ability to anchor at least the middle of the rotation. As long as those are your expectations, you’re going to be perfectly happy with what he brings. As for those of you who foolishly wrote him off after that first start, well, you might want to get the grill ready for that crow.