How Jon Lester continues to fight off age to become a ‘metronome' for Cubs rotation


It's not every day you hear the word "metronome" to describe a baseball player.

But Jon Lester isn't your average baseball player.

He still has two years and almost $50 million left on the megadeal he signed before the 2015 season, but Lester has shown no signs of slowing down...even if he technically IS slowing down.

The 34-year-old saw a dip in his velocity to career lows in 2018 (91 mph average fastball, 90.2 mph average sinker) and that led to his lowest K/9 (7.4) since his 2012 season in Boston (7.3 K/9). 

That didn't stop Lester from once again looking like the Cubs' ace, leading the league in wins (18) and turning in a 3.32 ERA while making at least 30 starts for the 11th straight season. 

The Cubs only played one playoff game in a season that fell short of everybody's expectations, but Lester can't shoulder any of that blame — especially after yet another gutsy performance in that one-game Wild-Card against the Rockies at Wrigley Field on Oct. 2.

Lester walked the first batter of that game (Charlie Blackmon) who came around to score two hitters later and Cubs fans were biting their nails less than 10 minutes into the game. 

But from there, Lester did what he does best — adjust and put his team in a position to win the ballgame.

With that outing, Lester's postseason resume improved to the tune of a 2.51 ERA and 1.019 WHIP over 154 innings.

"Extremely impressive," Cubs president Theo Epstein said the day after Lester's six strong innings. "He's like a metronome with his ability to take the ball, make just about every start and find a way to contribute to winning baseball and in the postseason. I mean, it's hard to live up to that postseason reputation time and time again. You go out there, you make a couple bad starts in October and that reputation's gone. But he lives up to it just about every time in a Cubs uniform.

"That was such an impressive performance, fighting a lot of little small things that could've gone against him and a little bit of a tough first inning and he just found a way to adjust and get better. That was a huge performance for this team. We find a way to walk off one of those four innings that we had an opportunity to do so, that's a performance that goes down in Cubs lore.

"It's really unfortunate it wasn't able to happen. But man, proud of him, proud of how he's handling aging...don't tell him I said that."

Epstein's wisecrack drew laughs from the Chicago media, but his point still holds weight — Lester has handled aging remarkably well up to this point.

Outside of one month in 2015, Lester was fantastic in his first two years with the Cubs but the haters and worrywarts were out in full force in 2017, all but writing the retirement speech for the veteran southpaw after he went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, his worst marks since 2012. 

Even when Lester got out to a red-hot start to the 2018 campaign (12-2, 2.58 ERA) and earned a spot on the NL All-Star team, everybody was screaming for the Regression Monster to hit

Sure, we saw some regression in the second half (6-4, 4.50 ERA), but he also posted a 1.52 ERA in September.

How does he keep finding success as the years and innings pile up? 

By reinventing himself.

For Lester, it's not about advanced stats or Analytics with a capital "A" but more about finding ways to simply get outs and limit the damage. He knows he's pitching to a lot more contact now than he was even a couple years ago and with all those balls in play sometimes comes bad luck on bloopers or ground balls past the shift.

Earlier this year, Lester was asked if he believes he is a different pitcher now than he was in 2016:

"Very different," he said. "I'm relying a lot more on my defense. In '16, I had a lot better stuff — consistently better stuff. I've had starts this year where I've felt really good physically and been able to repeate and do the things that I've done in the past. Obviously, I've thrown a lot of baseballs. There's just some wear and tear there. I'm not gonna be the same pitcher I was even last year or two years ago.

"We're making adjustments. We're figuring out new ways to get guys out and I know people are making a big deal about how hard balls are hit or whatever, but an out's an out. I really don't care. ... I'm just trying to get outs. I'm trying to go as deep into games as I can and take the ball every five days. That's all I'm really concerned about."

That's exactly the type of mindset and professionalism that helped transform the Cubs clubhouse into a consistent winner.

With the World Series now over, the 2019 MLB season has become the focal point and 2018 is nothing but a chapter in a history book now.

And moving forward, bet against Lester and the Cubs at your own risk. 

"The bonding that goes on in [the clubhouse] is a little bit different than anywhere else," Lester said less than an hour after the Cubs were eliminated from the postseason. "You got guys in here that are unique. I feel like this is my family. You see a lot of emotion here and I don't think anybody's moving on from this.

"...You have guys that give a shit and really care about us winning, regardless of their stats, regardless of anything else. That's what makes us a unique group. Obviously it didn't work out tonight. That happens. I don't think we beat ourselves — they beat us and sometimes that happens.

"I love our guys. I love our competitiveness. I love our grind. I love everything that these guys do, what they bring. There's not a group of guys that I would take into another one-game playoff tomorrow than this group. And I would like to think we would win it."

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