Cubs: How will Jon Lester turn things around in 2020?
Chicago Cubs Jon Lester has cemented his status as arguably the best free-agent signing in history since arriving in the Windy City in 2015.
Jon Lester’s decision to sign with the Chicago Cubs kickstarted one of the most successful eras of baseball in franchise history, one defined by a World Series championship in 2016. Fittingly, Lester was utterly dominant that year, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA in 202 2/3 innings of work and finishing second in the National League Cy Young Award voting.
But things have been a grind for Lester ever since. He had command issues in 2017 and 2018, and last season he allowed the most hits of any pitcher in the NL.
The Cubs already let Cole Hamels walk in free agency and have yet to add a back-end starter, so there will be plenty of pressure on Lester to have a bounce-back year as the Cubs hope to get quality innings from their top starters.
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But Lester also just turned 36, and his velocity and “stuff” (for lack of a better time) are certainly on the decline.
One of the reasons Lester had so much success in 2016 has to do with his command of the fastball. He threw the four-seamer nearly 50 percent of the time and had tremendous success on the outer half of the strike zone against both righties and lefties.
The decline in velocity is making things more challenging. Lester averaged close to 93 mph on the four-seamer in 2016, according to Baseball Savant. Naturally, he has seen a drop since then, averaging closer to 91 mph on the four-seamer in 2019.
As a result, Lester is also getting fewer swinging strikes because he cannot beat hitters with pace and instead has to nibble. Not only does this make it harder to get ahead, but it also makes it that much tougher to get good hitters to chase.
Perhaps it is time for Lester to change his approach. Jayson Stark of The Athletic previously reported pitchers are showing an increasing reluctance to throw fastballs in a “hitter’s count.” Yet Lester’s occasional struggles with command almost seem to necessitate a “get me over” fastball, at times.
The 36-year-old needs to show even more finesse. He had a ton of success with the curveball last season, with opponents posting just a .295 xSLG and an average exit velocity of only 84.9 mph, according to Baseball Savant. Throwing more curveballs early in counts might lessen the self-imposed desire to nibble, and–seeing as opponents have not done damage against the curve throughout his career–get Lester more comfortable outs from free swingers.
Another key will be finding a way to reestablish more horizontal movement on the cutter, a pitch that has grown markedly less effective for Lester in recent years. Having more bite to the cutter would likely generate more swings-and-misses while also mitigating the need to work in a bevy of changeups. Instead, Lester might be able to surprise hitters by working up in the zone with four-seamers, as he did during the 2018 season.
Much like Zack Greinke has done in the later years of his career, Lester needs to rely on more deception and movement rather than an insistence on command. If he can use the full extent of his arsenal and generate more movement, he can reassert himself as a quality starter.