As troubling trends continue, it might be time for Cubs' Jon Lester to reinvent his game to have success
Lester is missing fewer bats and allowing more hard contact as the season progresses
Almost exactly one month ago, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester was an All-Star who went into the break with a 2.58 ERA, fourth lowest in the National League. It was the 11th lowest ERA in baseball at the time.
Since then, Lester has seen his ERA balloon to 3.89, culminating with a disaster start Saturday against the Nationals (WAS 9, CHC 4). Lester did not make it out of the fourth inning and he allowed eight earned for the second time in five starts. He allowed at least four runs for the sixth time in his last eight starts.
Lester owns an 8.01 ERA in his last eight starts -- it's a 10.32 ERA in five starts since the All-Star break -- and opponents have hit .352/.422/.642 against him in those eight starts. For comparison's sake, AL MVP candidate Mookie Betts is hitting .351/.439/.669 this season. Over his last eight starts Lester has turned every hitter he's faced into a slightly worse version of Betts. Yikes.
"His hard stuff is terrible. He's losing velocity. His fastball and cutter, they're hitting over .400 on anything hard. That's a big problem," CBS Sports HQ (video above). "You can't give up an over .400 batting average against any pitch. It's as simple as that. I don't care how good your secondary pitches are -- and Lester's are very good -- if you're not spotting your fastball, in this case your cutter too, you're not going to get anywhere. You can't only throw junk. It doesn't work."on
Lester, like almost every other 34-year-old with nearly 2,500 big-league innings on his arm, is indeed losing velocity. His fastball is averaging 91.6 mph this season, down from 93.1 mph just two years ago, when he was the ace of Chicago's 2016 World Series team. His cutter is down from 91.8 mph in 2016 to 90.6 mph in 2018. Pitchers lose velocity later in the careers. It's a fact of life.
Losing fastball velocity affects all pitches as well, not just the fastball. Offspeed pitches don't play the same way off a 91 mph heater as they do off a 93 mph heater. Hitters have that much more time to react and discern whether they're getting a fastball or something that moves. Not coincidentally, Lester's hard contact and strikeout rate are trending in the wrong direction:
"It's just unraveled. He has not been able to locate his fastball. He's getting pounded," added Keri. "And of course when you get pounded, you start to get cute, you start to nibble around the zone, and now he's walking guys too. Home runs are up, hits are up, walks are up, strikeouts are down. It's a disaster."
Lester's recent performance -- and let's be real, he's been abysmal for over a month now -- wouldn't be such a huge concern if the Cubs had a bigger lead in the NL Central, and if the rest of the rotation were performing as expected. The Brewers are only two games back and Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks have been up and down all year. Cole Hamels has pitched well in his two starts since replacing the enigmatic Tyler Chatwood.
It is possible Lester has reached -- or is close to reaching -- the point where he has to reinvent himself to have success. The way he pitched pretty much his entire career may not work anymore. Even during his All-Star first half, there were indications things would head south given the hard contact and strikeout trends. Fellow workhorse lefty CC Sabathia struggled greatly in his mid-30s before reinventing himself in his late-30s. Lester could be reaching his 2013-15 Sabathia phase.
I absolutely believe Lester is good enough and savvy enough to make the necessary adjustments and again become an effective pitcher. The real question is how long will that take? It could happen next time out, or it could happen next year. Lester is neither really as good as he was in the first half nor really as bad as he's been in the second half. The truth is in the middle somewhere. The sooner he finds that happy medium, the better it'll be for the Cubs.
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