Jon Lester’s struggles in the Chicago Cubs’ 10-6 loss to the San Diego Padres Sunday weren’t just an aberration. It’s been an unsettling trend that’s happening at the worst possible time.
Lester earned a no-decision after giving up five earned runs through the fifth inning, and his performance since July 1 continues to bloat his stat line. In seven starts, he’s 2-2 with a 6.81 ERA and 1.88 WHIP.
For the Cubs to win the NL Central and have any postseason success, Lester needs to recapture at least some of the magic he had earlier in the year.
The 34-year-old lefty pitched like an ace through June, which the team needed given the rest of the starting rotation’s issues. His 10-2 record, 2.18 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 16 starts put him in the discussion for the NL Cy Young Award.
Thinking he could maintain those pristine numbers might have been a bit foolish. As Fangraphs alluded to last month, Lester has been playing with fire a lot this season by pitching to contact. His 4.83 FIP and 4.79 xFIP rank 66th and 67th, respectively, among starting pitchers. Those numbers are not what you expect to see from an elite-level starter.
He always has been capable of outpitching his peripherals throughout his career, and the Cubs defense is solid enough to keep Lester from getting burned too often. However, there have been other disturbing trends in the last month or so that raise an eyebrow.
Since July 1, Lester has surrendered at least one home run in each of his seven starts, tallying nine total during this stretch. To put it in perspective, he had only given up 10 long balls in his first 16 outings through June.
His pitch count also has been troubling since July. Lester has thrown 100 or more pitches four times but only made it past the fifth inning in two of those starts (5.1 and 6 innings in each start). The lowest pitch total he’s racked up is 86 but in just 3 innings of work.
Prior to this rough patch, Lester threw 100 or more pitches seven times but managed to make it into at least the sixth inning in all those starts.
Cubs fans have to hope this is just a small blip on the radar screen. As it stands, the current starting rotation lacks a surefire ace or consistently elite starter aside from Lester.
Not having at least one top-tier starter won’t cut it when facing hot NL teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks or Milwaukee Brewers in the playoffs. Heck, it might not cut it when trying to stave off the Brewers in the division race.
Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana have been wildly inconsistent all season, making it hard to project what they’ll do during a division race or playoff series. Mike Montgomery has been a solid fourth or fifth starter, but he’s much more valuable out of the bullpen as a long reliever.
Yu Darvish, who is on track to return in September, can’t really be relied on until he starts stringing starts together. And while the addition of Cole Hamels certainly provides a battle-tested arm to the rotation, there is no guarantee he can rise to elite status that quickly. Nothing this season shows that he can play the role of a No. 1 starter come October.
That’s why having Lester in that ace role is crucial. The Cubs need him to be a reliable No. 1 every fifth day the rest of the way. It’s the only way they can lock up a third straight division title and make a deep postseason run.
If he can’t be that guy, the Cubs playoff ride could be a short one in 2018.