This should come as no surprise, but the Cubs are really, really good this year. They lead the majors with triple-digit wins and clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs before any other team came close to a playoff berth. The National League infield was composed of four Cubs players and the awards ballot will be littered with North Siders.
Now that many of the playoff bids have been decided, the most intrigue comes from the awards races. Namely, the NL Cy Young, which is wide open. From big names like Washington’s Max Scherzer and San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner to new stars such as Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks and New York’s Noah Syndergaard, there seems like no wrong choice. For me, the decision is clear. The 2016 NL Cy Young winner deserves to be my favorite player in sports, Jon Lester.
When the Cubs inked Jon Lester to a 6-year, $155 million deal two winters ago, they signaled that they were a contender and added a consistently All-Star caliber pitcher. Though Lester had his ups-and-downs in his first year in Chicago, finishing a pedestrian 11-12 with a 3.34 ERA, he still justified his contract with a strong finish and contributed when Chicago needed him the most- October.
This year, Lester hasn’t only returned to his top form- he’s having a career year. With a win on Friday, Lester would win 20 games for the first time in his career and take the league lead in wins. His ERA is a spectacular 2.28, second best in the majors, and he ranks 7th in the NL in strikeouts (191), 3rd in wins above replacement for pitchers (5.6), 3rd in walks/hits per innings pitched (1.00), 1st in percentage of quality starts, which means 5+ innings at or under 3 runs, and 6th in innings pitched (197.2).
Yes, Lester hit a rough patch in July, when he was pounded for 18 runs in 22 innings (a 7.36 ERA), but the team lost 15 of 20 games during that stretch. After that wakeup call, Lester has been lights-out in the second half. Post-All Star game, Lester literally hasn’t lost- he is 10-0 with a majors-leading 1.48 ERA. In September, Lester has allowed only two runs in five starts and has earned a win in each of the starts. Lester’s contributions have allowed the Cubs to run away in the second half and win 48 of their 70 second-half games.
Lester’s improvement goes beyond his stingy ERA and win-loss record. His well-documented weakness, throwing to bases, is less of a weakness, as he has almost cut in half stolen bases from opposing players. Lester has also improved marginally at the plate, hitting three doubles and drawing six walks. Yes, both are normally horrible marks, but Lester’s slight improvements have helped his team win games.
Lester’s competition is stiff- teammates Jake Arrieta and Hendricks, Syndergaard, Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto from San Francisco, Scherzer and Tanner Roark from Washington, and 3-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. Jose Fernandez, who tragically died in September in a boating accident, was also in the conversation prior to passing away and may still receive consideration. But what separates Lester from the pack is that stellar second half. One recent example of a pitcher coming out of nowhere to win an award is Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, who started his 2014 season with a 3.01 ERA prior to the All-Star break and a majors-leading 1.73 ERA after the break. Lester has easily eclipsed those totals.
I’d vote for Jon Lester for the NL Cy Young, but as important as the Cy Young conversation seems, Lester’s goal is winning the World Series with Chicago. One of the main reasons that the Cubs signed Jon Lester was his postseason experience, and now he will get another chance to prove he’s a postseason ace. This October will truly show if Lester has what it takes to be the best pitcher in the game.
Note: Post written before Saturday’s game