Your MLB ERA leader is 35-year-old Jon Lester, and he's doing it by painting the corners amid diminished velocity
In the fifth year of his six-year deal, the Cubs veteran ace is still getting it done
Back in December 2014 while much of baseball media was in gorgeous San Diego for the annual winter meetings, news broke that the Cubs had agreed to a six-year, $155 million deal with free agent left-handed starter Jon Lester.
Nearly five years later, it's worth pointing out that not only is that obviously the best free-agent deal in the history of the Cubs, but it's turning out to be one of the best nine-figure free-agent contracts we've ever seen.
To this point in Lester's Cubs career, he's 64-32 with a 3.23 ERA (128 ERA+). He's on his way to a third All-Star Game appearance and possibly a third top-10 finish in Cy Young voting (he finished second in 2016). He has thrown a whopping 70 innings in the postseason for the Cubs, putting up a 2.44 ERA and taking part in several of the biggest games in franchise history.
And, of course, there's the "curse"-breaking World Series title. Most contracts of Lester's nature assume the value is going to come from the early years and anything in the later years is gravy. Winning a World Series title and seeing Lester finish runner-up in 2016 Cy Young voting meant the deal was paid off in two years. Here we are in Year 5, though, and Lester is dominating.
What Lester is doing this season might be his most impressive work, at least on an individual level. He leads the majors with a 1.16 ERA in 38 2/3 innings (barely qualifying him, as the Cubs have played 38 games and a pitcher must pitch at least one inning for every game his team has played in order to qualify for an ERA title). He's struck out 39 and walked just eight. He's holding opposing hitters to a .233/.272/.340 slash. His splits show that while he's hard on both, he's actually a bit tougher on righties.
What's going on here?
Earlier in his career, Lester could blow guys away with mid-90s heat and and a low-90s cutter. At age 35, he's much more guile and commanding the corners now.
There are 522 players who have thrown at least one fourseam fastball this season. Lester's 90.1 mph average ranks him 464th. Baseball Savant's database shows 180 pitchers who have thrown a cutter this season. Lester's 87.2 mph average ranks 110th. He's not exactly the same guy that could blow people away.
His average velocity on every single pitch is at a career low, but Lester is striking out 24.7 percent of the hitters he faces, which lines up almost identically to 2016 and isn't far off his career high (26.7, back when he was 25 years old).
What Lester is doing is commanding the ever-living hell out of his pitches, specifically low in the zone and on the corners -- also low out of the zone and just missing the corners by design. Check out his pitch location breakdown this season, via Brooks Baseball.
Against lefties (from catcher's point of view):
Note the clustering low and outside. Now against right-handed hitters:
He will go inside on righties, but there's still a huge concentration of keeping the ball low in or out of the zone and lots of work on the corners.
In watching him work, Lester just has a "know how" up there. We've heard the difference between "throwers" and "pitchers" for years and Lester is a Professional Pitcher out there on the mound. He's a seasoned veteran who knows exactly the game plan he wants to execute and goes out and executes with such precision that he's eating up the competition.
Now, my fantasy brethren will point to things like 90.2 left on base percentage and a 2.72 FIP (vs. the 1.16 ERA) and talk of regression and this being unsustainable. To this I say, yes, Jon Lester having a 1.16 ERA is completely and utterly unsustainable. I'm pretty confident he's not going to end the season with an ERA in the low 1.00s challenging Bob Gibson's record 1.12 mark. That's pretty obvious. Pitching closer to the 2.72 FIP is pretty reasonable, though, and I fully expect Lester to close down this season with a good-to-great stat line.
That Lester's doing this with such diminished raw "stuff" compared to what he once was is a testament to what kind of a pro he is. He's been worth every penny and then some to the Cubs. The best signing in franchise history just keeps paying dividends.
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