Six years. $155 million.
The opening salvo of Chicago Cubs contention was fired when Theo Epstein and company signed old pal Jon Lester to the above offseason mega-deal, and the first year of that deal has been, meh, alright.
The Cubs’ current 94-65 record makes pessimism easier to stash in your back pocket for another day. Winning does cure everything, and “everything” includes bloated contracts and the players who sign them. So when we break down Lester’s 2015 numbers, the lesser ones don’t stand out in our psyches the way they might if the Cubs were 73-86 going into the season’s final series. No matter which way you cut the pie, or which brand of negativity you try and subscribe to, 2015 has been a resounding success for the Chicago Cubs, and thus for Jon Lester, too.
By top of the rotation standards, Lester’s first season in Chicago has been relatively pedestrian. What’s interesting about Lester is that since he became a full-time starter in 2008, he has been remarkably consistent overall. Other than a negative blip in 2012 (4.82 ERA), and a positive blip in 2014 (2.46 ERA), his ERA has been between 3.21 and 3.75, making his 3.34 this season right on target. He’s once again over 200 innings –the seventh time in eight seasons; the one exception was 2011 when he pitched 191– and over 200 strikeouts. The WHIP of 1.122 is almost directly on his career average (1.259). When all is said and done, Jon Lester has had very much a Jon Lester-like season.
2015 has been an inconsistent campaign for Lester on, if not the macro level, then the micro one. His ERA was 6.23 in March, 1.76 in May, 5.74 in June, 1.66 in July, 5.04 in August, and 2.36 in September. But, per usual, the final product is a solid, if not elite, 3.34.
The numbers, whether taken by 2015 alone or his entire career, don’t point towards Lester being a number one starter. There are two factors that seem to influence people when they speak of Lester’s ace-like qualities. The first is that he’s incredibly durable –see those 200 innings in seven-of-eight seasons– making him the good kind of innings eater. The second is that he’s pitched well when it has counted –a career 2.57 ERA in the postseason, and a microscopic ERA of 0.43 in the World Series. When you add those two factors to his numbers, which are pretty firmly rooted in a Number 2 pitcher’s, the “ace” label is born.
Which makes watching Lester start after start a lesson in looking at the broader picture. 2015 hasn’t been any different. Pitching alongside Jake Arrieta hasn’t done Lester any favors in terms of what Cubs fans are hoping for from their aces, but Lester has looked the part of a Number 2 most of the way. That might be disappointing based on his contract, but his eight-plus years of history have proven that to be exactly what he is.
The more you dig into Lester’s numbers, the more astounding the consistency becomes. The quality of that consistency has been good, not great. But when a pitcher can be counted on for the level of consistency Lester has provided year in and year out, that’s where his value becomes such as it is.
When asked how they feel about Lester’s first year in Chicago, most fans give some degree of shoulder shrug: “Eh, not bad.”
As far as things go in Chicago, and for recipients of overpriced, multi-year mega-deals, that, much like the 2015 Chicago Cubs, has to be seen as a resounding success.