Kevin Luchansky writes about Chicago baseball for WARR.
What are the Cubs getting in Jon Lester?
A three time All-Star, two time World Series champion, 116 game winner with a career 3.58 ERA and nearly 1,500 strikeouts. Oh, and the aforementioned list doesn’t even include his biggest life accomplishment — defeating Leukemia in 2006. Quite an impressive list for someone who just turned 31 years young this month.
When you sign an ace like Jon Lester, there’s a lot of positives you add to a rotation, especially one starved for a front-man of Lester’s stature. But aside from those everyday stats that make him an almost annual All-Star selection, what are the Cubs getting is a player that produces at a high level and more importantly, he does so very consistently.
Since his first full season pitching in the major leagues (2008), Lester has produced a season long ERA north of 4.0 just once (2012, 4.82 ERA). While that is an ERA most would associate with a terrible year – especially by an ace’s standards – the ERA doesn’t tell the whole story.
Lester was victim to a .313 BABIP and though he surrendered more home runs per nine innings than his career average, he still struck out 7.5 batters per nine and racked up 3.2 WAR. In that same season, the entire Cubs staff only accumulated a 5.7 WAR. Think about that for a second. Sure, the Cubs have improved their staff since then, but they’ve still got Jeff Samardzija’s shoes to fill and I don’t think we will ever se 2013 Travis Wood again.
The Northsiders are also getting a guy that can really hit his targets and know how to keep the ball down, which is uber important when pitching in Wrigley Field, as it was in Fenway Park, both traditionally considered as good hitter’s ballparks. For his career, Lester has an impressive HR-to-Flyball ratio of 9.4%. Even better is that number has been trending in the right direction for the past 2+ seasons, posting a 8.3% mark in 2013 and 7.2 in 2014. The paltry 2014 figure was good for 16th best in the majors.
Speaking of hitting targets, Lester’s control is also an area that has also trended in a positive direction over the past few seasons. Issuing walks — though not uncommon for younger guys – was definitely an issue for Lester in the early beginnings of his career, backed by his posting a BB/9 of well over 4 in 2007, a season in which he split between Triple A Pawtucket and Boston.
Since 2010, though, Lester has been able to improve upon that number in each season, with his biggest jump coming this past year, going from a 2.83 in 2013 to an incredible 1.97 in 2014, good for 25th overall in the league.
And last but not least, the Cubs are getting a left-hander with a pitch repertoire that not many can hold a candle to. Depending on whether you split the two seam fastball apart from his regular grip fastball, Jon brings five or six pitches with him to the mound.
With speeds varying from 76-92 miles per hour, Lester has a great ability to keep hitters off balance and often guessing at what might come next, whether it’s from an 87 mph cutter, a 75 mph curve or a 92mph sinker.
In addition to that, another positive when looking at this from the Cubs’ front office angle is that his velocity has stayed relatively the same as he’s aged, with his fastball high of 93.5 mph in 2009 not much different from his “low” of 91.5 this past season. In 2007 and 2008, Lester’s average was in the 91mph range as well, so there hasn’t been a true downward turn.
Personally, I think Lester chose a shot with the Cubs over the Red Sox or any other team because he wants to really write his own legacy and have a chance at delivering World Series rings to two (one now formerly) starved-for-rings franchises. With the contract he signed, there will be no shortness of pressure to produce right away, but I think his shoulders fit the build.
And besides, it’s not like any free agent that signs with the Cubs DOESN’T know what they’re getting into. The whole “109 years since their last World Series title” thing is pretty well documented.
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