Chicago Cubs: Lester must adapt to achieve continued success

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

On the surface, 2018 was another quality season for Jon Lester. But the peripherals tell a more troubling story for the presumptive ace of the Chicago Cubs.

The Chicago Cubs Jon Lester pitched to an 18-6 record and 3.32 ERA last season, including a sterling performance in September where he went 4-1 with a 1.52 ERA as well as a quality start against the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild Card game.

And yet for all his successes last year, there are some concerning trends for the 35-year-old lefty.

Lester posted a 4.39 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching), which was his highest number since 2007 when he was just a second-year starter for the Boston Red Sox. Perhaps more concerning, however, has been the decline of value in Lester’s fastball.

In 2016–arguably his best season–Lester threw the fastball at a 58.6 percent rate, according to FanGraphs. In that same season, Lester recorded an average velocity of 93.1 MPH while registering a 14.0 pitch value with the heater.

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But in the two years since, Lester has lost nearly two miles per hour on the pitch, and last season he registered a -6.7 value with the fastball. For a control guy that likes to establish himself with fastball location, these are troubling signs.

Cubs fans saw what a decrease in velocity did to Jake Arrieta after his Cy Young campaign in 2015. Arrieta lost a lot of bite with his wipeout slider, and his numbers and peripherals have decreased in every year since, a trend that also continued with the Philadelphia Phillies this past season.

The ability for pitchers to adapt to a loss in velocity is imperative for sustained success deep into their careers.

Lester has seemingly already begun to restructure his approach. He threw more curveballs and nearly twice as many changeups as he did in 2016, with the changeup becoming a pretty successful out pitch.

And yet despite resorting to more off-speed, Lester saw and 8.5 percent decrease in his ground ball percentage (37.7), while the fly ball percentage rose by four percent (36.4) and the line drive percentage increased by 4.4 percent (25.8).

Considering the loss as mentioned earlier in velocity and the fact that he just posted his worst K/9 (7.38) since 2012, it is unlikely that Lester can replicate his success in 2019 without manufacturing more ground balls.

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Not everyone can be blessed with a consistently dominant pitch like Mariano Rivera‘s cutter, or achieve a mid-30s renaissance as we’ve seen from the likes of Justin Verlander. The best pitchers find a way to evolve.

There is no question that Jon Lester is one of the most determined competitors in all of baseball. And as he approaches the twilight of his career, he must find new ways to mix pitches and locations if he hopes to bolster Chicago’s hopes for another World Series title.