Chicago Cubs: Should we be worried about Jon Lester’s velocity decline?

(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images) /

Since a Cy Young runner-up finish two years ago, Jon Lester‘s fastball velocity steadily declined. This was readily apparent in his 2018 season debut.

Despite the Chicago Cubs coming through with a win on Opening Day, more than a few folks felt it was far from a good performance. Sure, the bullpen pitched well, but Jon Lester seemed, well, off. He failed to pitch past the bottom of the fourth, saddling the relief corps with a heavy workload on the first day of the season.

Lester left after allowing four runs – three earned – on seven hits. He struck out a pair, but walked three in what can only be called an underwhelming start to the campaign. Tasked with getting the postseason-hopeful Cubs off on the right foot, the veteran clearly ground from his first pitch, struggling to put away the young Marlins hitters.

"“Guys I got ahead of, I didn’t put them away,” Lester told afterward. “Guys I got behind, I couldn’t get back ahead. I really had no feel for the breaking ball. Good cutters that I did throw, they were balls out of the hand. An adjustment has to be made, and we’ll make it."

After the game, folks pointed to a flat fastball as the issue. When I dug a little more into the matter, I now share their concerns. At least to a degree.

A sharp downturn in fastball velocity

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Lester threw 71 pitches in his abbreviated outing last Thursday. And he broke 91 mph just twice with his four-seam fastball. His sinker seemed to sit pretty close to the 90.5 mph he averaged in 2017, but he’s clearly lost a step in the last two years.

During his masterful 2016 campaign, Jon Lester had everything working on a near-daily basis. His heater sat just above 93 mph, with his sinker at 91.7 mph. Last season, though, he saw downticks with virtually every high-velocity pitch in his arsenal.

His fastball dipped to a career-low  91.7 mph – nearly 1.5 mph lower than the year prior. His sinker lost its edge a bit too, and his cutter – arguably his best pitch – lost a full three mph in velocity since 2013.

This is expected, right?

Now, this is to be expected. Lester isn’t a kid anymore. He’s in his mid-30s now and his arm has some miles on it. But with the loss in velocity comes a necessity to alter how you attack hitters. We don’t yet know what adjustments, if any, Lester is making.

Against Miami, two of every three pitches he threw was a fastball. Last season, by contrast, half of his pitches were classified as a fastball by Fangraphs. He hardly threw his change-up at all on Thursday, instead relying on that heater that barely averaged 90 mph.

Furthermore, his cutter usage plummeted by more than 10 percent, as well. Now, take all this with a grain of salt. It was, of course, his first outing of the year. The mindset may very well have been to attack a young lineup and try to pound the zone with the fastball. We don’t know that information.

Pitch effectiveness an area of concern

But from 2016 to 2017, we do know that Jon Lester simply wasn’t as effective. In the Cubs’ World Series 2016 season, his fastball rated as 1.33 wFA/C (runs above average per 100 pitches). Last year? That tumbled to -0.40 wFA/C – meaning his heater was actually a below average pitch.

With that came a higher earned run average, FIP, etc. His cutter, change-up and curve ball all trended downward, as well. By season’s end, everything outside of Lester’s sinker rated out with a below-average grade – at least in terms of wFA/C. (It should, however, be noted that his sinker actually improved from -0.72 wFA/C to -0.07 wFA/C.

Next: Miami series brought a lot of positives for Russell

One game does not a season make (although you’d never know that on social media). Early season velocity issues have been part of Lester’s game for a long while now. Freaking out after a late March start (earlier than ever, mind you) – is foolish. As would be immediately writing it off as no big deal.

At the very least, it’s something to keep an eye on when as the season progresses.