ARod-Cubs drama adds another chapter as he and Joe Maddon have ‘candid’ conversation at Wrigley FieldAugust 13, 2018
Just before Jon Lester walked off the mound to hit the showers, a smattering of boos rained down from the 41,320 fans at Wrigley Field.
This is the same Jon Lester that signed a $155 million deal before the 2015 campaign, immediately bringing a championship credibility to the clubhouse and changing the culture of losing.
The same Jon Lester that was co-NLCS MVP in 2016 and pitched out of relief to help the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years.
The same Jon Lester that has a career 2.55 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 148 postseason innings.
The same Jon Lester who was being heralded as the savior of an underperforming Cubs rotation for the first three-plus months of the 2018 campaign.
Booing Lester is silly, but you can’t blame Cubs fans for being frustrated with the results of late (Lester’s surely frustrated, too).
After getting tattooed for 8 earned runs in 3.2 innings during Saturday’s game against the Nationals, Lester’s season ERA has ballooned to 3.89.
Neither Lester nor Joe Maddon had any answers Saturday evening about what’s behind these struggles or how – specifically – to right the ship, but neither projected a “sky is falling” attitude.
“I feel like I made some really good pitches today that didn’t go my way and that’s kinda where Im at right now,” Lester said. “When I didn’t, they got hit. That’s the price you have to pay when you don’t execute when you need to. These are big league hitters. The more opportunity that you give them to stay within that count or stay within that at-bat, the more likelihood they are to get a hit or hit something hard.
“Like I said, it’s really been my whole year, I feel like when I do have a hitter on the defense, I’m not putting them away. I’m either just off or just down or they foul it off and now it’s on to the next pitch. Unfortunatley, it’s where I’m at right now and I need to make the adjustment somehow.
“…At the end of the day, the results aren’t there and this is a results-driven industry. And I’m not doing my job.”
He earned a spot on the All-Star team last month thanks to a 12-2 record, 2.58 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, but things have not been great since then.
His second-half numbers have been alarming: A 10.32 ERA, 2.07 WHIP, 36 hits and 9 homers allowed in 22.2 innings. Over those five starts, Lester surrendered at least 4 earned runs in four of them.
Of the 25 innings Lester has thrown a pitch in since the All-Star Break, he’s managed to record just three “1-2-3” innings.
Lester was the anchor the Cubs badly needed in the rotation in the first half and now his struggles come at a time when Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery are finding their groove and Cole Hamels has been a boost to the starting five.
“I guess I’m just in this rut right now,” Lester said. “I don’t know. I probably felt like that was some of the better stuff I’ve had over the last couple starts and that was the outcome. So unfortunately the rotation has been throwing the ball well and now I’m the guy that’s not.
“That’s a bad feeling. Bad feeling personally as a teammate, letting the team down, letting the bullpen down, all of the above. Continue to work and continue to try and figure it out and make adjustments.”
Maddon insists he doesn’t see anything differently from the Cubs ace, that he’s healthy, velocity isn’t down and “stuff” has been good.
“I’m not really worried about him right now,” Maddon said. “Again, if he was injured, I’d be more concerned. If there was something that looked dramatically different, but I don’t see that. Sometimes, it’s like a hitter, you go through a little bit of a slump, then you come back out of it.
“But I don’t see anything dramatically different the way he’s winding up, throwing the baseball and the numbers on the board [velocity] look the same. It’s gotta be an execution situation.”
In actuality, Lester’s velocity is down again overall this season, but only very slightly from the dip he experienced in 2017. His “stuff” has not been as effective, however.
FanGraphs rates Lester’s cutter at -3.9 runs above average after that was his bread-and-butter pitch in 2017 (9.1 runs above average) and 2016 (18.7). His changeup is the only pitch that rates positively right now, but he only throws that about 10 percent of the time.
A lot of this right now could be regression after experiencing quite a bit of luck in the first half.
That doesn’t make it any less concerning for the Cubs, however.
During his 3.2 innings Saturday, 8 Nationals registered an exit velocity of at least 100 mph when they made contact, including the last 7 balls in play off Lester. On top of that, 4 more balls were hit with an exit velocity of at least 90 mph.
Lester maintained he’s healthy and while he’s not happy with his performance, he’s not going to overreact, either. Like usual, he was very self-aware and open as he refused to make excuses after this latest bump in the road.
“Yeah. I’m not worried about it,” Lester said. “I shouldn’t say that. I don’t want to take away from today — today was pretty bad as far as the results. But this is the ebbs and flows of the season. Unfortunately, I’m pretty down right now as far as where I’ve been pitching and giving innings and my start date hasn’t been great and I need to pick that part up.
“But I’ve been through it before; I’ve come out the other end just fine. I gotta keep working. Unfortunately in this game, it’s results-driven and when you’re not getting results, you want to immediately run to something. You want to run to you’re tipping [pitches], you want to run to mechanical [issues], you want to whatever and sometimes it’s really nothing. It’s just about a little bit of luck, a little something here or there to give you that break.
“I dont’ want to take anything away from today, but I’m not worried. I feel great physically. It’s not like I’m battling anything to try to execute pitches. It’s just for whatever reason, I’m not executing when I need to and getting those outs. I knew after the first inning today they were gonna be aggressive to the fastball and they were. I just wasn’t able to put them away before I had to go back to that fastball and that’s all on me.”
Even before Saturday’s game, Lester was allowing the highest “hard contact” rate and lowest “soft contact” rate of his career.
Couple that with his lowest strikeout rate since 2008 and highest walk rate since 2011 and it adds up to yet another huge question mark in a Cubs rotation full of those.
Forget how a playoff rotation may take shape for this Cubs team — the more pressing concern now is how Lester navigates through the final seven weeks of the regular season before October even begins.
Lester is a seasoned veteran and has an incredible track record of success, so chances are still very high he can transform back into a frontline pitcher for this Cubs rotation. But even he admits he’s a different pitcher now at age 34 than he was in 2016 when he was challenging for the NL Cy Young.
His Cubs teammates aren’t concerned, either.
“Jonny’s a pro,” Anthony Rizzo said. “He knows how to handle success and he knows how to handle failure with the best of them. He’s our horse, we lean on him and we’re gonna continue to lean on him down the stretch.
“I know for a fact that we have all the confidence in the world when he goes on the mound to pitch well and get us a W.”