Jon Lester’s Breakout Date Revealed

Four starts into his $155 million Cubs career, Jon Lester is 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA and he routinely allows singles to become triples because he can’t throw over to first base to hold runners. Or so goes the knee-jerk narrative being crafted by paranoid fans and promoted (or at least not always actively cut down) by some in the media.

But here’s the thing: IT’S ONLY FOUR STARTS! Not to mention that throwing over to first doesn’t necessarily mean that a runner is going to be less successful in his attempt(s) to steal on a pitcher. That’s certainly been the case for Lester, who has actually allowed fewer steals since his throws to first essentially stopped a few years ago.

I understand the concern and the desire to latch onto this minor aspect of the man’s game though. After all, despite his status as an elite pitcher, most Cubs fans knew little about Jon Lester beyond the fact that he was a part of the success in Boston and that he’s supposed to be really good.

Most of us have probably seen more of Lester through the first month of the baseball season than we had in his previous 9 years in the majors, so it’s understandable that we’d not be aware of all his little quirks and tendencies. But the arguments that he’s not worth his contract due to either a slow start or a lack of desire to throw to first is fallacious at best.

By taking that stand, you’re asserting that the Cubs front office was unaware of these things as well. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did a little more than just kick the tires on a guy they already knew well from their days together in Boston. Then again, maybe they did buy a new BMW 760Li without confirming that it had heated and cooled cup holders.

Such a facet of Lester’s game could potentially have gone unnoticed though, so I’ll demur discussing that further for the time being. His overall performance, however, would not be something the Cubs brass would have simply glossed over. I have no doubt that they were keenly aware of Lester’s tendency for slow starts.

As the chart above clearly shows that Lester’s had a history of getting off to relatively slow starts. May appears to be better than April, but June looks to be the month he really takes a big leap forward. July isn’t quite as strong and it appears that the lefty is feeling the affects of the long summer by the time August rolls around, though he also appears to be pitching more in that month.

But where things really get exciting, and where Jon Lester earned that big contract, is the September/October split. When the stakes are highest, he appears to have been able to buckle back down and find a second wind of sorts. Lester’s most recent start on Friday was like a microcosm of his career, as he appeared to get stronger as the game wore on.

While many were lamenting the fact that Lester surrendered leadoff hits in each of the first 4 innings, by the time the dust from Billy Hamilton’s fleet feet had finally settled, the Cubs ace had put up 10 strikeouts to only 1 walk over 104 pitches.

And those 4 aforementioned hits? Well, with the exception of a Todd Frazier double in the 1st, they were the only one’s Lester allowed. He didn’t get a win to show for it, but his ERA and WHIP both came down and Lester currently sits 9th in MLB with a 2.11 FIP and his 2.25 xFIP is second to only Clayton Kershaw.

Those are both imperfect theoretical numbers, but they’re still pretty good indicators of what a pitcher’s performance should look like. Why then does Lester’s ERA reflect something different? It appears to be a mix of both pitch location and bad luck; Lester’s .424 BABIP against is the worst of any qualified pitcher to this point in the season.

For those of you not familiar with that stat, it stands for batting average on balls in play and simply measures how often a batted ball lands for a hit. To give a little context, even the best hitters are typically capable of carrying a BABIP of around .350. Those extra 74 points Lester’s giving up simply aren’t sustainable.

It’s not all about hitters just getting lucky though, as Lester himself has alluded to. Thus far on the season, he has yet to get a great feel for his cutter and has been leaving it out over the plate a bit too much, which has resulted in a line-drive percentage of 40.3, again the highest among qualified pitchers by a wide margin (J.A. Happ is 2nd with 29.4%).

Ah, but here’s the good news: Lester’s career LD% is only 19.7, so it appears that he’s ready for a nice regression to the mean here shortly. The only downside is that it may come at the expense of his fly ball percentage, which currently sits at 17.9 against a career average of 33.6; but let’s worry about that later.

About his improvement throughout the game on Friday, Lester had the following to say to CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney:

“After about the second inning, I got in a little better rhythm,” Lester said. “Kept some guys off the bases. That’s been kind of the thing that’s been plaguing me – just the continued baserunners.”

“It was a lot better. Had a better feel for my cutter tonight. I’m learning. New league, new faces, new guys, kind of figuring it out as we go and keep adjusting.”

So when, then, can we reasonably expect Lester to get a feel for his pitch and become the ace the Cubs ponied up for in the offseason? In reviewing game logs from his past 5 seasons on, I found that Lester seems to break out somewhere around his 7th or 8th start, which usually falls a couple starts into the month of May.

Barring any further delays or hiccups in the schedule, it looks as though Lester will make his 2nd May start — and 6th of the season — on the 6th in St. Louis; not necessarily the ideal mix for a breakout game. His 7th start would come on Monday the 11th against the blazing hot New York Mets; again, not the best confluence of events.

Due to the improvements I’ve seen thus far this season and the general worthlessness of the opponent, I’m actually going to look earlier in the schedule to predict that Lester will show us all why he was so sought after when he takes the bump on May 1st to face the Milwaukee Brewers. Yes, sometimes low-hanging fruit really is the sweetest.

Besides, I’m just hoping he’ll show out so we can stop talking about all the things he’s not doing and put the focus on how his rediscovered awesomeness means that the Cubs are sure to win a World Series this year. In all seriousness though, I do believe Jon Lester is going to start Jon Lestering again very soon.

And when that happens, look out, Milwaukee.  

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