Last season, Chicago Cubs starter Jon Lester knew that David Ross would be behind the plate for him each start. Now it’ll be Willson Contreras’s turn to be Lester’s “security blanket”.
Last year, Jon Lester finished with a 19-4 record, a 2.44 ERA, and was second in NL Cy Young voting. He was the undoubted linchpin of a loaded Cubs rotation that boasted the 2015 Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta), and the 2016 ERA King (Kyle Hendricks) alongside a multiple-time champion in John Lackey.
Some speculate that Lester could be out-of-sorts this season because of Ross’ retirement, but according to Carrie Muskat, skipper Joe Maddon disagrees.
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"“I think he’s even more comfortable now and in a good way,” Maddon said Wednesday. “He’s a Cub now, he feels very good about being here.”"
How much more comfortable could the ace of a staff that just broke a 108-year-old losing streak really be? What does that mean for the rest of the league?
A league of his own
Lester was a lock-down pitcher, even though he couldn’t throw over to first. He recorded a career-high LOB% with 84.9%, and career-lows in BABIP, WHIP, and BAA. He induced groundballs on 46.9% of balls put in play against him last season, mostly due to the consistent success of hit cut-fastball. Lester threw his cutter 2.52 runs above average in 2016, and it was his second most used pitch at 23.8%.
The Cubs ace has truly become a symbol of winning for the rotation as well. In 2016 Lester recorded the highest Clutch factor on the Cubs rotation with a 1.79. He also contributed the second most Context Neutral Wins (3.51) on the team, behind only Hendricks (4.51).
Learning to work with Willson
Contreras provides an equal spark to the offense that Lester provides to the pitching staff. in 76 regular season games, Contreras hit .282/.488/.845 with 12 home runs and 35 RBIs. The Cubs catcher had the sixth-highest oWAR on the team (1.9) between Addison Russell and Javier Baez, and the seventh-highest total WAR. Willson also ranked fifth-highest on the team in OPS+ (125) between World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (124) and former centerfielder Dexter Fowler (126).
For the Cubs to have a shot at repeating as Champions this season, Contreras and Lester need to develop chemistry. In the short time they’ve worked together, Lester’s pitching has been unrecognizable. Opponents are hitting .417/.556/.917 against him with two home runs and four walks. Cubs fans don’t need him to be the next Grandpa, but they need him to be stable.
Lester, on the other hand, seems more confident about the pairing.
"“I got traded [to Oakland] and threw to Derek Norris for two months and it went fine,” Lester said. “I’ve thrown to plenty of guys before. ‘Rossy’ didn’t catch me at all in Spring Training in ’13 and then one day, he was in the lineup. You figure it out as you go and make adjustments.”"
Last year, Lester was a bulldog, and it’s safe to say Cubs fans won’t accept anything less this year. With Opening Day right around the corner, only time will tell if this relationship will float or sink.