Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester has a strong history in the postseason. After pitching his way into contention for the National League Cy Young award in the second half of 2016, the Cubs have lined Lester up to be their number one starter yet again.
Because of the wild card game in 2015, which was started by Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester ended up being the team’s game one NLDS starter by default. All signs pointing to him being on the mound for game one yet again this year, but it’s less because they can’t start Arrieta in that game and more because he’s been consistently their best pitcher this season–and the most reliable go-to guy in a playoff rotation.
That’s no knock on Kyle Hendricks, who now has a 1.99 ERA–the best in all of baseball. But Lester has been on another level with his pitching in 2016, leading Major League Baseball in quality starts. Lester has a string of eight consecutive starts giving up one or less earned runs, tossing at least six innings in each game with a cumulative 0.64 ERA. Overall, he has a 1.34 ERA in 13 second half starts–12 of which were quality starts.
So how reliable is Lester in the postseason? The first start he ever had in a playoff game was all the way back in 2007. After making two relief appearances in the ALCS that year, the Boston Red Sox rolled the dice in putting Lester on the mound for game four of the World Series, with the Sox up 3-0 and looking to sweep the Colorado Rockies. Lester would toss 5.2 innings, allowing three hits and three walks but zero earned runs, winning the game and the trophy.
The following season, Lester helped pitch the Red Sox into the ALCS with two magnificent starts against the Los Angeles Angels–totally 14 innings with 11 strikeouts and zero earned runs. But the Tampa Bay Rays got to him that year, as he had a 4.97 ERA in two ALCS starts and his Red Sox were sent home for the winter.
Lester had but one start in the ALDS in 2009 against the Angels, going six innings and allowing three earned runs in a 5-0 loss. He wouldn’t pitch again in the playoffs until 2013, which turned him into a bonafide playoff star. Lester started five games that October, accumulating 34.2 innings with a 1.56 ERA–including two starts in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in which he totaled 15.1 innings and just one earned run. The only game he lost of the five that postseason? A 1-0 nail-biter in game one of the ALCS.
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Lester has started three playoff games since that 2013 World Series victory, including the 2014 American League wild card game and two games for the Cubs last season. In those three games, he has pitched 21.1 innings, allowing 21 hits and just four walks with 19 strikeouts. Unfortunately, he’s also allowed 13 earned runs, which balloons his ERA to 5.48.
But Lester pitched better than that number would lead you to believe. In the wild card game in 2014, he was through seven innings with a 7-3 lead and was sent back out for the eighth, when he allowed three earned runs–two which scored after he left the game. In game one of the 2015 NLDS in St. Louis, Lester allowed just one earned run through the first seven innings–before Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham hit an eighth inning, two-run homer off of him. The New York Mets would get four runs off Lester in a start in the NLCS in 2015, as well.
So how good has Lester been in the postseason in his career? In short, he’s been excellent. In 98 career innings in the playoffs, Lester has allowed just 80 hits while striking out 87 and putting up a 2.85 ERA. While some of his games more recently probably haven’t had the kind of results he would like, the truth is he’s even pitched well in those games–he’s just been pushed a little farther than maybe he should have.
With the Cubs heading into the playoffs and needing someone stable and trustworthy to take them into game one, against whichever team it may be coming out of the wild card, there’s no doubt that Lester is the right man.