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

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

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.

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 Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

Kris Bryant told reporters Wednesday he's offered to leadoff for the Cubs this season to manager David Ross. And while nothing is set in stone, the 2016 NL MVP is one of the Cubs’ best options for the role.

Bryant isn’t a prototypical leadoff guy but it’s not like we’re discussing a cleanup man moving to the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Yes, he has power, but he’s also an on-base machine (career .385 OBP) who accepts his walks (career 11.9 percent walk rate).

Considering Bryant’s plate discipline, opponents will either have to pitch to him or run the risk of walking him ahead of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. Bryant leading off will give those guys more RBI opportunities. He’s also one of the Cubs’ best baserunners, and his ability to take an extra base benefits those hitting behind him.

It’s important to note Bryant wouldn’t change his approach in the top spot — his power won't just disappear. He has a career .502 OBP with the bases empty and could put the Cubs ahead right away with a long ball or put them in business with an extra-base hit.

Bryant will be himself no matter where he hits: an elite on-base guy who almost always puts together a quality at-bat. He’s as good a leadoff candidate as any on the Cubs (no disrespect meant to Anthony Rizzo, aka the “Greatest Leadoff Hitter Of All-Time”).

If Bryant leads off, here's what standard lineups could look like, both against righties and lefties:

Versus RHP

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward (RF)
7. (R) David Bote
8. Pitcher
9. (S) Ian Happ (CF)

Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon liked to alternate lefties and righties in his lineup. With MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule for relievers, I stuck to that mentality to create a late-inning advantage for the Cubs.

Schwarber-Báez-Rizzo looks lethal and is somewhat interchangeable. Rizzo recently said he prefers hitting third or fourth but will hit where Ross wants him. Ross suggested Wednesday Rizzo will hit behind Bryant; it looks unorthodox but Ross can always adjust it. 

Rizzo has fared well hitting second and hitting him there keeps him and Bryant back-to-back.

Rizzo hitting second (237 plate appearances): .300/.401/.515, 153 wRC+.

I like Báez getting RBI chances behind Bryzzo, the Cubs’ two best on-base guys. And, he mashes in the three hole:

Báez career hitting third (118 plate appearances): .366/.398/.571, 161 wRC+ 

Similarly, Schwarber has been more successful hitting cleanup than any other spot:

Schwarber career hitting fourth (68 plate appearances): .393/.441/.787, 211 wRC+

Those aren't the biggest sample sizes, but the numbers are eye-popping. Contreras and Heyward hitting fifth and sixth brings us back to a more traditional Cubs lineup. The second base competition is wide-open, but I'll give Bote a slight edge after he hit .274 with a .425 OBP post-All-Star break last season.

Bote will also play some third, which is when we'll see Daniel Descalso and Jason Kipnis (if he makes the roster) at second.

RELATED: Cubs roster projection 1.0: Bullpen, second base competitions are wide open

From there, I like a pitcher hitting eighth and Happ hitting ninth as a second leadoff guy. He has a good eye for the strike zone and his ability to get on base will give the top of the order more RBI chances.

Now, for the lineup against lefty starting pitchers:

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward OR (R) Steven Souza Jr. (RF)
7. (R) Albert Almora Jr. (CF)
8. Pitcher
9. (R) David Bote (2B)

Ross believes in a structured lineup, so this looks pretty similar to the previous order. Heyward isn’t going to sit against every lefty starter, but when he does Souza’s power bat will fit in nicely in the sixth spot.

In this scenario, Hoerner is in Triple-A and Bote is the starting second baseman against lefties. Where Bote hits is contingent on Almora. I’d put Bote ninth when Almora is in the lineup because the former is more of an on-base threat. Almora’s contact-oriented approach could help move ahead any baserunners ahead of him. The same can be said about Bote, but I like the idea of him getting on base for the top of the order.

Happ, a switch-hitter, will also start against righties and I can see him hitting sixth, seventh or ninth. A lot of this hinges on how he, Almora and Bote are performing at the plate. Each will get their at-bats, but the Cubs need one to emerge as a consistent contributor.

Do these groupings look unfamiliar? Sure, but Bryant leading off will put us in new waters. Again, nothing is set in stone, and the Cubs have a ton of lineup combinations for this season. Seeing Bryant atop the order sure looks like an enticing possibility, however.

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

The leadoff spot has been in flux for the Cubs since Dexter Fowler left after the 2016 season. A new chapter in that role could soon be coming.

According to multiple reports, Kris Bryant talked about leading off for the Cubs in a meeting with new manager David Ross and it sounds like he will get a chance to do just that.

The Cubs have been creative with the leadoff spot without the lack of a traditional leadoff hitter on the roster. Anthony Rizzo even has 57 games in the leadoff spot in his career.

Bryant has had seven starts at the top of the order. He hit .321/.387/.464 in those games.

The Cubs' own Twitter account has made it semi-official by poking fun at Bryant as a leadoff hitter.

What this would do to the rest of the Cubs' lineup is going to be interesting. Bryant primarily batted second or third last year. Putting him at leadoff could separate him from Rizzo and Javy Baez in the middle of the lineup. Ross could also continue to change things up and put Baez or Rizzo second to keep the team's best three hitters back-to-back-to-back in the order.

Ross hasn't even managed a spring training game yet, but this could be his first big change. With the first spring training game coming up on Saturday, we should get a clue as to how Ross plans to send the team out. Suddenly the batting order is something to keep an eye on.

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