LOS ANGELES -- When someone signs a gigantic contract he's supposed to be perfect. Any little thing goes wrong and you'll see headlines that show the entire contract value, as if a player is going to earn the entirety of that money in one particular game in the first year of a six-year deal.
A bad game elicits a firestorm of fan criticism on social media, internet message board and on sports talk radio, from callers and hosts alike. You see "what is wrong with [insert player]" articles splashed all over the place. We've all seen it.
To wit, Jon Lester was saddled with snide remarks revolving around "$155 million" throughout a pretty-good-but-definitely-not-great 2015 season. He had a 3.34 ERA (114 ERA+) and 1.12 WHIP with 207 strikeouts in 205 innings. Again, that's pretty good. If he were a run-of-the-mill three starter, any team would have been ecstatic with those numbers. They are not ace-caliber numbers, though, and that's what the Cubs paid for -- an ace.
In 2016, both in the regular season and postseason, Lester has been worth every penny. After a gem with few blemishes in Game 5 of the 2016 NLCS, an 8-4 Cubs win, Lester has the Cubs within one game of their first World Series since 1945 as they took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"That's what he does," said personal catcher David Ross. "He's a big-game pitcher. He's got a lot on his resume and we expect big things outta him when he takes the mound. He never disappoints. This guy is a true competitor in every sense of the word. He made great pitches when he had to and I couldn't be happier for him."
That big-game pitcher thing? Yeah, it's legit. Lester now has a 2.50 career ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 119 postseason innings. That's pretty nails when it matters most.
So far this postseason, Lester has a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings. It's merely an extension of a great 2016 for the Cubs ace.
The 19-5 record and 2.44 ERA will get Lester some Cy Young consideration for sure (maybe finishing around fourth or fifth?). His consistency late in the season was outstanding, too. If we throw out the last start -- which was basically like a spring training outing, so the results don't matter -- he had 11 consecutive starts with at least six innings and no more than two runs allowed. In nine of those 11 outings, he allowed just one run or fewer.
He has been a rock in the postseason.
In Game 1 of the NLDS he traded zeros with Johnny Cueto until Javier Baez's eighth-inning homer provided all the cushion the Cubs needed in a 1-0 win. Lester went eight scoreless, giving up only five hits. He struck out five and didn't issue a walk.
In Game 1 of the NLCS Lester worked six innings, allowing only a wind-aided Andre Ethier home run. Sure, the defense and some luck (hard hit balls right at his defenders) were on Lester's side, but overall he was good. He gave up just four hits and a walk in six innings.
On Thursday night in Dodger Stadium, Lester was great. In seven strong innings, he allowed just five hits and a run. He struck out six and walked only the lead-off batter of the game. After that, no freebies.
Sure, there was great focus on Lester's one glaring weakness, but the simpletons really need to get over that. His throwing woes to first base don't matter when he's only giving up five hits (four singles and a double) in seven innings. They have barely mattered all season. Between Lester not letting many guys on base, David Ross' cannon and Javier Baez's wizardry at applying tags, things have been neutralized to a small extent.
So why, during the postseason, are some acting like this is some grand strategy that will "mess with Lester's head?"
I have no idea. It hasn't been working all season and I'm not sure why the Dodgers or the national broadcast thought it would suddenly change on Oct. 20.
"No, I mean, it is what it is," Lester said when asked if it bothered him. "People have been doing it all year."
Correct. And it hasn't rattled him yet. As the saying -- that is usually applied to speedsters who can't hit well -- goes, you can't steal first base.
"No," manager Joe Maddon said to a question asking whether the Dodgers were doing things Lester hadn't seen yet this season. "There's always plotting going on. And like I said before, the most important thing is that Jon throws the ball well to home plate. That's the most important part of this. That gets overlooked. And I don't want him to get caught up in the minutiae of everything else. Do what you do best. What he does best is he throws pitches very well, up to 94 miles an hour where he wants to, and then he has a great cutter and a curveball. So why would I want him to get mentally infiltrated with trying to hold runners if he's not comfortable? So we have other things in place to take care of that, and he was glad he went out and pitched tonight like he did."
The Dodgers could talk all they wanted about bunting and getting into Lester's head on the bases. They could dance around (seriously, why wasn't Enrique Hernandez going to steal instead of just hopping around?) and try to look cute all they wanted. The businesslike Lester was too busy keeping them out of scoring position for the majority of the night. And he was more than OK with two particular lefties trying to bunt.
"I'd prefer Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson to try to bunt," he said. "They're home run guys."
Even on the one run Lester allowed, he damn near stranded the runner at third. The Adrian Gonzalez grounder might have ended up getting Howie Kendrick thrown out at home plate had Anthony Rizzo fielded it cleanly.
Lester was in control all night, meaning it was only a matter of time before his teammates gave him the necessary support to fly the W and move to within one game of the World Series.
I'd say that's worth $155 million. Put those snide headlines in the rear-view mirror where they belong. Lester's a money pitcher and he's done exactly what the Cubs paid him for in 2016.