Chicago Cubs: There is a Lester problem

Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

While most worry about the inconsistent offense and the back-end of the rotation, the Chicago Cubs aren’t set at the front of it either.

It may sound stupid to worry about a pitcher who is 12-4 with a 3.34 ERA, and that’s after a pretty horrific month. Luckily for you, dear reader, I have never shied away from sounding stupid. You do it your whole life it becomes the norm.

And luckily for me, the dear writer, those who cite wins and ERA to prove a pitcher’s worth have been proven to be the traveling snake oil salesmen of baseball. Which sucks, it took me forever to get past the traveling medical salesmen level in “Red Dead Redemption.”

I’ve been covering this a lot at BP Wrigleyville. What’s of little question is that Chicago Cubs’ ace Jon Lester was a squatter’s paradise in July and that continued with his first start in August on Sunday. Hitters batted .310 off of him in the month, they had an on-base percentage of .410 and slugged .548. Basically, everyone was an All-Star against Lester in July. What do you know, Smashmouth was right!

Lester gave up 22 earned runs in just 30 innings of work, for a tidy ERA of 6.48. Perhaps more worrisome, he only struck out 17.4 percent of the hitters he saw, well below league-average, and he walked nearly 12 percent, which is way above league-average. This is putting the teeter-totter the wrong way.

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The thing is, these have been problems all year for Lester, and his defense has bailed him out. When you dig down more, you see that Lester has been giving up the wrong kind of contact, i.e. loud, all season. Those chickens just came home to roost the past month. Whatever roosting is, I grew up in the city.

All season, Lester has carried a career-low in strikeout-rate. Now, that in itself is not a reason to break the glass in case of emergency. Kyle Hendricks doesn’t strike out that many either but has shown if you can augment that with soft-contact you can be successful, even dominant.

The problem for Lester is he hasn’t generated a lot of soft-contact either. He’s carrying a 37.6 percent ground-ball rate, which is way below his career average and below league average.

More troubling, this season has seen him have a 24 percent line-drive rate against, which is above league-average again and a good deal above his 20 percent career-rate. Where your heart really starts squeezing and causing numbness, where there shouldn’t be numbness, is his hard-contact rate against, which measures not just line-drives but anything that’s hit hard. It’s 33.7 percent when his career-mark is 26.8 percent.

What’s strange for Lester is that in June, when he was pretty good, his hard-contact rate against was 40 percent, which is basically astronomical. It’s where the movie “Up” took place. And yet everything was hit at his defenders and granted the Cubs have the best defense in the league by some distance, so they get to more than any other team.

But in June his BABIP (batting average of balls put in play) against, which usually levels out around .300, was a hilariously minuscule .171. That just doesn’t happen.

July actually saw his hard-contact rate go down, to a still unacceptable 29.7 percent, but his line-drive rate spiked to 30 percent too. And this time, the defense couldn’t untie him from the railroad tracks in time. Hence why he’s getting labeled.

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I have this stats-guy. I don’t let him out much, sunlight tends to hurt him. His social skills have been described as “agricultural.” His name is Craig, but he can crunch a spreadsheet for you. He came up with this study, which basically shows which pitchers get the combination of strikeouts and soft-contact most.

Essentially, those are the two best things the pitcher can control before the defense has to get involved. He weighed that against the amount pitchers get the combo of walks and hard-contact against, because those are the two worst things the pitcher can control before the defense is involved.

The names at the top will be familiar, as they are Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom. Lester ranks 67th out of 78 qualifying pitchers in this category, In just K+Soft Contact, he ranks 72nd. When it comes to just walks+hard contact, he ranks 56th.

So this is worrisome. The last two months have to see Lester find more grounders, less walks, and quite simply fewer things that go BOOM!. Otherwise, the Cubs don’t have anything close to a  No.1 to start any Game 1.