Shepkowski: Jon Lester’s Been What The Cubs Have Needed Him To Be

By Nick Shepkowski–

(CBS) Cubs left-hander Jon Lester was nothing short of garbage Wednesday night at Wrigley Field in a loss to the Tigers, going just 2 2/3 innings and allowing seven earned runs and three homers, including one to an American League pitcher making not only his first big league plate appearance but taking his first at-bat in any league in years. Lester looked more like a high-A pitcher Wednesday than signed a $155-million type.

While the stat line lended more support to the common belief that Lester’s been a disappointment this season, he’s actually in the middle of one of his finest big league campaigns.

Think about where the Cubs would be if Lester wasn’t in the currently constructed rotation. Without him, we’d have watched 24 more starts to date from the likes of Tsuyoshi Wada, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler. Sign me up as not wanting to see any starts from those types ever again. Fellow Cubs starters Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Dan Haren already come with enough concern each time they’re up in the rotation, so you can just imagine if Lester wasn’t here. You could forget a playoff chase because the 2015 Cubs would be beyond lucky to be near .500.

Lester had a baller 2014 that helped him ink big-time money in free agency. He was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball a season ago, and many people expected him to keep up that same level of success right into 2015.

But that’s not the pitcher Lester has been the majority of the time since making his big league debut in 2006. Lester has twice finished in the top five in American League Cy Young voting but otherwise hasn’t shown up on any voters’ ballots.

The 3.58 ERA Lester has this season matches up perfectly with the 3.58 ERA he has for his 10-year career. I’ll admit that’s a little higher than I anticipated for 2015, but it’s hard to get upset over.

A deeper look at some of his other numbers shows plenty of positives.

Say what you want about quality starts being awarded, but undoubtedly you find baseball’s best pitchers at the top of that list each season. Lester ranks tied for 18th in MLB with 16 of those this season. Some want to claim Chris Sale is the best pitcher this city has seen in some time and that may very well be true, but Sale has just one more quality start in 2015 than Lester.

Lester’s 1.227 WHIP is the third lowest of his career. He’s allowing the fewest walks he ever has while striking opponents out at the third-best rate of his career.

In the all-important Fielding Independent Pitching statistic, Lester checks in at 3.14 this season, literally .01 from his second-best season of his career.

Through 24 starts, Lester has earned a WAR of 3.0, according to FanGraphs.com, good for an 18th overall ranking for pitchers. If he continues at that pace, he’ll finish right around 4 or 4.1, which would match his fourth-best season.

Complain all you want about Lester being overpaid, but the fact of the matter is if the Cubs didn’t offer the deal, he’d instead be pitching in a Giants or Red Sox uniform. Without that $155-million dollar deal, the 2015 Cubs aren’t contending right now.

Lester can’t throw the ball to first base, nor can he seem to hold baserunners on. All he does really well on a field is throw the ball to the catcher while making it extremely difficult for the batter to get on base. But so far Lester has done that rather important part of the game for a pitcher very well in what’s been one of his better seasons to date.

Nick Shepkowski is a weekend host at 670 The Score and produces The Spiegel and Goff Show each weekday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.  You can find all of his work here and follow him on Twitter @Shep670.

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