Jon Lester had himself a month: two wins, 43 1/3 innings pitched, 1.66 ERA (second-lowest in the majors), 50 strikeouts (most in the majors). The 6-foot-4 left-hander reminded the franchise why it gave him a six-year, $155 million contract in the offseason to bring his services to the Windy City. Culminating in a 14-strikeout performance in the team’s win over the Colorado Rockies, Lester’s July was as impressive as anyone’s in baseball.
It was widely known that the 31-year-old hadn’t attempted a pickoff throw since 2013. When he broke the streak of 66 consecutive games with an attempt against the Cincinnati Reds, he nearly hurled the ball out of the field of play.
Part of being a professional pitcher is having the dexterity to keep a base runner honest, and to capitalize on them when they aren’t. Lester can’t. However, the point is rendered moot if the pitcher has the aptitude to get out of the inning without the opposition scoring at all.
Lester is 6-8 this season and has allowed 30 steals, the most of any pitcher in baseball. Base runners are converting 83 percent of steal attempts against him (to be fair, six have come by way of Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton, who leads the league by a mind-bending margin of 17). Once they take an additional base and move into scoring position, however, Lester truly shines; Chicago’s ace touts a Left on Base Percentage of 72.4 this season. Moreover, of the runners who have nabbed bases while he’s been on the mound, just five have scored.
Additionally, according to Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), Lester’s numbers compare favorably to the top echelon of current pitchers. Dallas Keuchel, for example, a leading candidate for the American League Cy Young award, per ESPN, has a higher FIP, xFIP and Walks and Hits Per Inning Pitched (WHIP), as well as a lower strikeout-to-walk percentage with runners in scoring position when compared to Lester’s figures. Zack Greinke, the leading candidate for the NL Cy Young award, per ESPN, also has figures in the three metrics that pale in comparison to Lester’s.
So, how is Lester elevating his game when there are runners in scoring position? Lester has induced just six double plays (tied for No. 130 in the majors), but has demonstrated more command of his pitching arsenal — change-up, curveball, cutter, and fastball — disallowing opposing hitters to even remotely pull the ball (39.4 percent of balls in play, the lowest percentage of his career), and is adeptly striking out batters (136, tied for No. 17 in the majors). Lester hasn’t had run support all season, currently getting 2.71 runs per start, which ranks lowest among all pitchers that have thrown 100 innings this season. For him to be in line for victories, he needs to perform in high-pressure situations, and he certainly has as of late.
The National League Central is arguably MLB’s most competitive division — it’s the only one that boasts three teams with at least 57 wins—and the Cubs, despite ranking third in the division, arduously climbed their way into the wild-card race; three games back of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lester has the Chicago faithful salivating over what would be the team’s first postseason appearance in seven years, and for good reason: he’s hitting his stride on the mound.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.