Jon Lester made his Chicago Cubs spring training debut, but his struggles leave fans wondering whether this is his typical early-season woes or the beginning of the end.
The goal of spring training is to get players their practice before going through the 162-game grind that is the MLB season. Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester knows better than anyone that this time is about putting in the work, whether you perform well or not, according to Bruce Levine of 670 the Score.
With all of that said, Lester’s spring debut left a lot to be desired. The veteran left-hander struggled, coughing up five runs, three of which were earned, off of three hits and two walks in over an inning of work. Not ideal, but also not entirely surprising given recent trends.
The expectations have certainly changed for Lester since the start of last season. Entering into his age 36 season, it is clear that Big Jon is far from the pitcher he once was, demonstrated by his lackluster performance in 2019. Last year, he posted a 4.46 ERA, but perhaps more notable is the fact that he led the National League in hits allowed, which gave him the highest hits per nine innings of his career at 10.7.
With that in mind, I can understand Cubs fans’ worries that this spring performance is yet another sign that the end is near for the former ace of the club. There are two things to consider, though: this is the first game of Lester’s spring training, and this is Lester we’re talking about.
Lester, historically, has gotten off to slow starts to his seasons. Lifetime, he’s only 18 and 19 in March and April, and spring training has been even rougher for him, especially in Chicago. Just last year, he struggled to a 10.57 ERA in 15 IP. Were red flags start arising is in how much more often we are seeing games like this clunker in spring training from Lester: a point which Paul Seifert brought up near the end of last season.
A troubling trend over the past few years to is the drop in the innings Lester is pitching. Before 2017, Lester reliably pitched around 200 innings in a season, falling short of that goal only once since 2008. His numbers explain why too, as his walks, hits, and home runs per nine have been at their highest over these past three years, leading to higher pitch counts, more runs, and earlier exits.
Even 2018, where Lester finished ninth in Cy Young voting and made the All-Star team, he was still playing above what he should have, indicated by a 4.39 FIP. Is this a lot to consider after one spring training game? Yes, but it’s hard not to think about it with the recent decline of one of the franchise’s best free-agent acquisitions.
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The warning signs were all there in this first spring outing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll have a terrible year. In what might be his last season with the Chicago Cubs, Big Jon may still be able to grind his way to another solid year. He has said he feels better than 2019, after all, so maybe he has one gem left in the tank.