Deep Dive: Lester tunes up for potential postseason run

1 month agoLance Brozdowski

Travel back in time to any of the historic moments in Jon Lester’s career and one thing remains consistent: his delivery.

“The repeatable, perfect, fundamental delivery, it’s been the same for so many years with Lester,” Marquee Sports Network analyst Sean Marshall said on Cubs Live! “He knows where he has to be with his body to command the baseball as well as he does.”

On May 8, 2008, pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Lester threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals with 9 strikeouts. His signature controlled windup and consistent landing spot on his body’s motion towards home plate — even at the age of 24 in his first full season at the major league level 12 years ago — are still unmistakable.

The same Lester put the Cubs on his back during their 2016 World Series run. He posted a .209 opponent batting average with a 2.02 ERA in 6 appearances, earning 3 wins between the NLDS, NLCS and World Series.

With the news that the 2020 postseason will feature no days off within rounds until teams reach the World Series, the depth of any postseason team’s starting rotation has become perhaps the single most important characteristic of a competitive team. For the Cubs, Lester is a piece the team needs to catch fire as October baseball approaches. Wednesday’s outing against the Indians stoked the flames. 

After three quality outings to start his age-36 season in 2020, Lester scuffled. He allowed 24 runs across 23.1 innings in a 5-start stretch, striking out just 20 batters. But Saturday’s outing in Milwaukee was the best of his season. He struck out 8 batters across 6 innings, the southpaw’s performance flying under the radar after his teammates’ heroic comeback against Josh Hader the following night and Alec Mills’ no-hitter Sunday. 

While Wednesday’s 5 innings against the Indians were not as stellar as his Milwaukee start, Lester faced a lineup loaded with right-handed bats that mash left-handed pitching. As a result, he turned towards a pitch that in some ways tells the tale of his storied career: his four-seam fastball.

After Lester’s 2008 season, his four-seam fastball velocity peaked. Many now don’t remember him as a flamethrower, but Lester threw close to 94 mph, above league average at the time. Over the next 8 years, Lester’s experienced some variation in velocity, but largely stayed above 92 mph. This season, Lester’s four-seam fastball velocity is down to 89 mph. But in response to that natural aging, Lester has turned more than ever to his cutter. This season he has thrown the pitch 33% of the time compared to just 23% in both 2008 and 2016.  

“Yes, the ticks aren’t there this year for Jon Lester, but the quality is,” Marshall said.

On Wednesday in a throwback-style outing, Lester threw his four-seam fastball 42% of the time, a season high by over 10 percentage points. While the pitch is a big part of his attack to right-handed hitters, it’s usage does not have a tendency to spike. But perhaps Lester’s last start against the Indians this season — where he cruised through 6 innings and used his four-seamer 30% of the time — was a blueprint for success he decided to dip back into.

Lester has now allowed only 2 runs in his last 11 innings with 9 strikeouts to just 3 walks. He’s slowly getting back on track to solidify the third option for David Ross if the Cubs are fortunate enough to earn a playoff bid.

“It’s not time for [Lester] to ride off into the sunset quite yet,” Marshall said. “There’s still some left in the tank.”

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