Jon Lester is likely going to win Pitcher of the Month for June. But his success for the Chicago Cubs is confusing.
Let’s start with the simple: Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester has had a great June. He’s 5-0 on the month with an ERA of 1.13. He’s pitched 32 innings, and he’s gotten through seven innings in three of his five starts. It’s been one of the best months of his career, and it’s bound to be recognized with the Pitch of the Month award.
But it gets a little puzzling with the peripherals on the season. Lester’s xFIP is 4.46. His K% is the lowest it has been since 2012, and his BB% is at its highest since 2011. His hard contact % is 36.5–well above his career average of 26.8%.
So how is Jon Lester having the success he is? He’s for sure benefiting from the stellar defense that takes the field for the Cubs on a nightly basis, but that doesn’t explain why Lester has been so much better than other Cubs starters.
A new formula, same results
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In his best years, Lester was somewhere between a groundball pitcher and a strikeout pitcher. In 2016—when he was runner-up for the NL Cy Young—he struck out about a quarter of the batters he faced. Of the balls put in play off Lester in 2016, 46.9% were groundballs.
That’s not the Jon Lester taking the mound every third day in 2018. His K% is just 19.4% and only 38.9% of the balls in play are on the ground.
Instead, Lester is getting more outs in the air. His fly ball percentage is a career high of 38.5%, but his homerun to fly ball ratio is the lowest it’s been since he joined the Cubs.
It’s hard to say whether what Lester is doing is sustainable. For what he depends on his defense for he’ll likely have all season, but ideally he’ll started getting more strikeouts and find a way to keep more balls in play on the ground.
Jon Lester has been one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2018, but the ways he’s finding outs for the Chicago Cubs has been entirely different.