Chicago Cubs: Is Jon Lester still the ace of the rotation?

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

Since 2015, veteran Jon Lester has anchored the Chicago Cubs starting rotation. But after his latest start, some are questioning how much he has left.

One game does not a season make. At least that’s what Jon Lester and the Chicago Cubs hope after the southpaw’s latest outing. On Tuesday, he lasted just four innings, he surrendered a staggering 10 earned runs on 10 hits, including a pair of home runs. After such a showing, is it time to ask if the 35-year-old lefty is still the ace of this staff?

This outing definitely won’t define an entire season – especially for a pitcher of Lester’s caliber. Michael Cerami at Bleacher Nation noted that Lester has annually clanked one game right around this point in the season since coming to the Cubs.  That’s a good point.  But this year, he’s done so on more than one occasion and it’s been getting worse.

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A slow trickle

In 2016 there was one significant bad run in an otherwise magnificent season.  In five July games, he posted a 7.36 ERA, gave up six home runs and struck out just 22 while walking 14 in only 22 innings of work. But he was so good before that month and so good after it that no one really gave it much thought.

In 2017 Lester managed to spread out the clunkers. There was one on May 28, another on July 9, then August 17 and finally September 22.  A season that ended with a 4.33 ERA and 1.323 WHIP reflected a significant regression from 2016’s 2.44 ERA and 1.016 WHIP.

Last year saw the return of the ‘bad’ month.  In five games from July 20 to August 11, Lester compiled a 10.32 ERA, allowing nine home runs and walking 11 while striking out just 19 in 22 2/3 innings.

Opposing hitters torched him to the tune of a whopping .383/.439/.766  line and 1.205 OPS in that period. Then, the ship righted itself and Big Jon cruised to a 3.32 ERA and 1.310 WHIP as the Cubs advanced to the postseason for the fourth time in as many years.

A troubling trend grows

This season is turning out the same, with two key exceptions. While the rough stretches are shorter, they are also more frequent. Three starts in May with a 10.26 ERA. Now the first two starts in August with a 15.00 ERA. This is culminating in a season so far with a 4.46 ERA and 1.407 WHIP.

Lester needs to turn it around quick. The Cubs are in a tight pennant race and this is no time to be clanking games.  If he doesn’t, he may not only wind up turning in one of the worst seasons of his career but (and this is so bizarre to think that my fingers almost froze) he may become the worst pitcher in the Cubs rotation.

Fortunately, the rest of the rotation is now healthy and pitching very well. Jon Lester is in his 14th season in the big leagues.  He has been the leader of a Cubs rotation that has won the NLDS four times, an NLCS and a World Series.  He’s played a key role in each of the Cubs’ postseason victories, most notably in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when he came on in relief of Kyle Hendricks in Cleveland.

Next. Brailyn Marquez showing he can turn into a future ‘ace’. dark

More to the point, the big lefty isn’t falling off a cliff in terms of performance, more like a gradual slide. With Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels pitching to career numbers and Jose Quintana being his steady innings-eating self, a little regression from Lester can be absorbed. But not for long at this point in the season. We know that – and more importantly, so does he.