NLDS Game 1: In-Depth Preview of Johnny Cueto vs. Jon Lester


When the Chicago Cubs, the regular season’s best team, square off against the World Series experienced San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS, the contest will most likely be decided by who wins the battle of the starting pitchers.

Jon Lester and Johnny Cueto have both had terrific seasons for their respective clubs. Let’s compare and contrast their numbers this year:

Cueto219 ⅔ 2.792.968.11.81.093147
Lester202 ⅔  2.443.418.72.31.016164

As you can see, this matchup is ridiculously close. Cueto has pitched more innings than Lester, but that is most likely merely due to the fact that the Giants were fighting for playoff position all 162 games while the Cubs took their foot off the gas in September.

Lester has the ERA advantage, but Cueto beats out the southpaw in FIP. This perhaps shows the difference between the other-worldly defense of the Cubs and the average to slightly above-average defense of the Giants. These numbers could suggest that Cueto was the better pitcher in 2016. But the fact is that Lester will march out to the mound with his terrific defense behind him once again, making the FIP almost irrelevant in terms of who will do the best in this crucial game.

The strikeout and walk numbers are pretty even, and the WHIP is quite similar, though Lester gives up fewer hits by a decent margin compared to Cueto, as can be seen through the BB/9 and WHIP comparisons. When accounting for park adjustments (ERA+), Lester is shown to be the better pitcher, though Cueto’s 147+ is far from a bad score as it ranked seventh in MLB.

Because Cueto pitched so many innings in the National League with the Reds, Cubs veteran Anthony Rizzo and National League veterans Miguel Montero, Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward have a good amount of experience versus the All-Star righty. Overall, the results have not been pretty.

Cubs Against Cueto

PlayerCueto vs. Cubs Hitters
Anthony Rizzo3-25, HR, 8 SO, 0 BB, 1 RBI, 1 2B
Chris Coghlan5-20, HR, 2B, 4 RBI, 4 SO, BB, 2 HBP
Miguel Montero 2-19, BB, 3 SO
Jason Heyward4-18, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 2 SO
Dexter Fowler3-16, 8 SO, BB
Ben Zobrist0-8, 2 BB, SO
Addison Russell3-6, 2 2B, RBI
Javier Baez0-6, 4 SO
Kris Bryant 3-5, SO, HBP
David Ross1-4, BB, 3 SO
Willson Contreras 0-3, SO
Jorge Soler1-2, 2B, RBI, BB
Tommy La Stella0-1
Totals 25-133, .188 AVG, 35 K, 10 BB/HBP, .530 OPS

With a .530 OPS against, Cueto has dominated the Cubs hitters throughout his career. The possible silver lining is that probable starters, and budding superstars, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell have had success against the Giants hurler, albeit in small sample sizes.

Cueto is a master at mixing pitches, as he possesses a straight fastball, a sinking fastball, a cutter, a change, a slider, a curve, and who knows what else. His sinker cuts away from left-handed batters, and for a guy like Anthony Rizzo who crowds the plate, it can look like the ball is going to hit you before it sinks in for a strike.

Though the lineup is not out yet, the basic alignment of Ross (because of Lester), Rizzo, Baez, Russell, Bryant, Zobrist, Fowler and Heyward are a combined 17-88 (.193) career against Cueto. When asked about his matchup against Chicago in Game 1 after his team won the Wild Card game, Cueto simply said, “I already know them.”

The Giants players haven’t exactly been terrific against Lester, but their stats are not quite as ugly compared to what Cueto has done against the Cubs. Let’s take a look.

Giants Against Lester

PlayerLester vs. Giants Hitters
Denard Span8-28, 2B, 3 RBI, 6 SO, 6 BB, HBP
Eduardo Nunez2-18, RBI, BB, 5 SO
Buster Posey5-16, HR, 2 RBI, 2B, BB, SO
Hunter Pence3-15, HR, 2 RBI, 2 BB, SO
Brandon Crawford3-11, 2B, RBI, BB, 2 SO
Angel Pagan0-7
Brandon Belt0-6, BB
Joe Panik1-5, 2B, SO
Trevor Brown2-5, 2B, RBI
Kelby Tomlinson0-5, 2 SO
Andres Blanco1-3  .288
Totals 25-119, .210 AVG, 18 K, 13 BB/HBP, .684 OPS

Overall, the team has been just about league average against Lester. A lineup of Posey, Belt, Tomlinson, Crawford, Gillaspie, Pagan, Hernandez and Pence are a combined 12-65, an average of .185, almost exactly what the Cubs lineup is against Cueto.

Crawford and Posey have both been moderately successful against the Cubs lefty, but key hitters like Pence and Belt have struggled.

Though Lester has not been quite as dominant against these hitters, he has been much better as of late compared to his counterpart. Over his last 12 starts, Lester has a 1.46 ERA with an insane 2.79 wins probability added (WPA). His .516 OPS against is somehow better than Cueto’s ridiculous numbers against Cubs hitters.

As far as how both pitchers have fared in the specific situations they will be in tonight, let’s take a look:


Cueto vs. Cubs 24 G, 3.24 ERA, 1.193 WHIP, 2.59 SO/BB
Playoffs 7 G, 5.35 ERA, 1.248 WHIP, 1.83 SO/BB
6+ days rest 37 G, 3.06 ERA, 1.155 WHIP, 2.87 SO/BB
Lester vs. Giants5 G, 2.25 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 2.00 SO/BB
Playoffs 16 G, 2.85 ERA, 1.071 WHIP, 3.48 SO/BB
5 days rest113 G, 3.45 ERA, 1.242 WHIP, 2.58 SO/BB

Not much to see here, as the only possible note is Cueto’s struggles in the playoffs. Overall, the righty has been good against the Cubs over his career, but nothing far off from his numbers against all other teams. Lester has been very good against the Giants, but only in a five-game sample size, and with a below average 2.00 SO/BB, suggesting luck may have been involved.

More from Call to the Pen

On six days or more rest, Cueto is nothing special, and the same for Lester on five days. The difference may well end up being Lester’s advantage in playoff games, where is ERA is nearly half that of Cueto’s. For whatever reason, the former Red loses his elite control in the postseason, though four of his seven playoff starts came with the Royals. With Kansas City, Cueto never became comfortable, and perhaps those games should be thrown out.

Overall, this will be an extremely competitive pitching matchup. If you thought Madison Bumgarner vs. Noah Syndergaard was good, then you need to tune into this game. While Syndergaard has fancier stuff than Lester, his stamina and control came to be his downfall as he was taken out after seven while Bumgarner finished the game himself. As an experienced playoff veteran, Lester will not have this problem, and will be able to take this game deep if he has his stuff.


As far as my prediction goes, the only thing you need to know is which team Aroldis Chapman plays for. I predict both pitchers to be stellar for about seven or eight innings. From there, the Giants will either let Cueto finish or turn to Sergio Romo or a mix of bullpen pitchers. For Chicago, there will be no question who to turn to as the flame-throwing Cuban lefty will be locked and loaded for his first postseason appearance since 2012.

Next: Most /Least Deserving for the NL's Major Awards

No matter what happens, this game will sure be a fun one as the Giants attempt to take the next step toward winning their fourth title in seven years, while the Cubs attempt to win their third in 110 years.