What to make of Jon Lester's 2019 struggles and how he should be viewed in 2020

Tony Andracki

In the grand scope of everything, how should Jon Lester's 2019 season be viewed? 

And subsequently, how does that impact how the Cubs view their starting rotation going into the 2019-20 offseason?

The three-time World Series champion is entering the final guaranteed year of his deal with the Cubs (he has a $25 million option for 2021 that vests if he hits 200 innings in 2020) coming off one of the worst seasons of his career.

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For the first time since he was a 23-year-old still trying to make it in the big leagues with the 2007 Red Sox, Lester failed to eclipse 180 innings in a season. He still made 31 starts, but managed only 171.2 innings - an average of a little over 5 innings per outing. 

For the second straight season, Lester did not throw a single pitch in the eighth inning or later of a game. In his first three years with the Cubs, he pitched into the eighth inning 14 times, including 4 complete games. 

Baseball has certainly changed over the last few years and bullpens now cover more innings than ever before. But for the most part, a lot of it was related to performance in Lester's case. Even with the low innings total, he still gave up a league-leading 205 hits, good for a 10.7 H/9 ratio that was way above any previous season (9.5 H/9 was his only other mark even close to it in his career). 

All those hits led to a 1.50 WHIP and 4.46 ERA, which ranked last and third-to-last, respectively, among the 34 qualified National League starters in 2019.

So it's easy to just point at Lester's age (he'll be 36 in January) and career workload (2,691.2 big-league innings, including postseason) and conclude that he's finished or close to it right? 

Not so fast.

Lester did see a dip in fastball velocity in 2019 - down to 90.9 mph, the lowest mark of his career and well below the 93.1 mph he averaged in 2016 - but he also made adjustments and is now throwing his fastball less often than ever before. As a result, he's ramped up his cutter usage (34.4 percent), and that velocity is roughly the same as it was a year ago and not far below where it clocked on the radar gun in his first couple years with the Cubs:

(Cutter velocity)
2019 - 88.1 mph
2018 - 88.4 mph
2017 - 87.9 mph
2016 - 89.4 mph 
2015 - 88.7 mph




The problem is that his cutter - like the rest of his arsenal - took a dive in pitch value this season, by FanGraph's metric. Pretty much across the board, Lester's "stuff" has declined, but that's to be expected with an aging pitcher with that much mileage on his arm. 

However, compared to his 2018 season when he put up a 3.32 ERA and won 18 games, Lester actually saw a nice jump in strikeout rate (21.6 percent, 8.7 K.9 compared to 19.6 percent, 7.4 K/9 in 2018) and lowered his walk rate (6.8 percent, way down from his 8.4 percent in 2018). 

He also felt like he found some things he liked later in the season, as he summed up after his final start in Pittsburgh:

"[My year was] not great," he said. "Made some adjustments here late that I feel like put me in a lot better positions with my pitches. Looking back on it, I don't want to say it was an easy fix - nothing's ever an easy fix - but I just think sometimes when you get into the position I'm at in my career, you start kinda buying into having to change. And I don't think I had to change.

"I think change sometimes can be bad and I think it put me in a bad position for most of the season. And a couple adjustments that we made here lately that I wish we would've gone back and kinda found those and talked about them a little bit sooner.

"...Sometimes you buy into what other people say about you as far as changing and adapting and you really don't have to do an overhaul. You just have to pick your spots to change and it put me in bad positions this year."

Lester didn't elaborate on those changes, but he's admitted several times over the last couple seasons that he's a different pitcher now than he was even in 2016, so he knows some adjustments to his overall profile are necessary.

Throughout the year, there were more than a few instances where Lester said he felt like he actually had good stuff and made good pitches, but watched as the opposing lineup still found holes in the defense. Take the Aug. 23 outing against the Nationals at Wrigley Field when his final line (4.1 IP, 9 H, 6 ER) looks bad, but 8 of the 9 hits were singles and many of those were infield hits (including a bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez) and groundballs that either went through the shift or rolled just past Cubs defenders.

That's baseball. It's exactly what people around the game mean when they talk about "baseball luck." 

Lester had bad baseball luck that day in late-August and in general, had some bad baseball luck in 2019 (.347 BABIP - 49 points above the MLB average of .298) but generally had some good baseball luck in 2018. 

No, Lester is not the pitcher he was in 2016 when he finished second in NL Cy Young voting. That guy is gone and probably not coming back.

But it's also maybe a bit premature to say he's washed up. 

"I've been written off before," he said. "I think I've done alright for myself. I don't care about that. I care about winning. At the end of the day, you can say I'm done. That's fine. I want to win. I don't care. Winning's winning and that's what I show up for. 

"The season sucked personally for me, but it also sucked for the team and that's what matters most."

When the Cubs handed Lester the $155 million deal before the 2015 season, they knew he would have an impact not only on the mound when he takes the ball every fifth day, but also in the clubhouse in between that time. He's done that and more over the last half-decade, serving as a respected veteran voice in the clubhouse and helping build the winning culture and show the young players what it truly means to be a professional.

Even though the team is now at a crossroads, don't expect Lester to change that mindset.

"I put my name on that dotted line. I'm not walking away from anything. I'm not a quitter by any means. I'll be here next year if they want. If they suggest for me to stay home, then we'll have that conversation," Lester joked. "I signed that line with the intention of playing six years and when the option comes up, we'll discuss that."

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What to make of Jon Lester's 2019 struggles and how he should be viewed in 2020 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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