In the best-case scenario, the Washington Nationals’ tentative one-year deal with left-hander Jon Lester solves several problems.
Pending a physical, the Nationals have added a three-time World Series champion who always seems to pitch his best in the biggest moments. And. the deal reunites Lester with Dave Martinez and Jim Hickey, his former bench coach and pitching coach, respectively, from his time with the Chicago Cubs. Best of all, Lester potentially fills a hole in the team’s starting rotation that is the key to any hopes of making an October push.
But the signing of Lester comes with an element of uncertainty: He’s a 37-year-old coming off two seasons in which he underperformed. His velocity dipped and his ERA inflated. His WHIP rose, as did the percentage of balls in play off Lester classified as hard hits.
The Nationals entered the offseason in need of another arm to add to the Big Three — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — the stars at the top of the rotation. The seemingly never-ending competition between Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross for the fifth starting place continues into 2021.
Washington allowed Anibal Sanchez to depart in free agency after two years filling the fourth-starter role, so general manager Mike Rizzo needed to make a move. And in many ways, bringing in Lester — whose option with the Cubs was declined — is the sort of move Rizzo loves.
Lester is a veteran with a history of success. He reportedly is signing an affordable $5 million deal. He won’t need to be an ace like he’s been throughout his career, but he’s displayed the required durability to still soak up innings. That’s the known.
The unknown is significant, though. He’s a five-time All-Star — the most recent selection coming in 2018 — who hasn’t played at that level consistently of late.
When Rizzo signed Lester’s former teammate Kyle Schwarber to play left field and traded for first baseman Josh Bell, he showed that he discounted whatever happened in the coronavirus-altered 2020 season. With just 60 games and a pandemic to navigate, the drop in production from Schwarber and Bell was figured to be an outlier rather than what to expect going forward.
That might be in play for Lester, too, who appeared 12 times last year. His 5.14 ERA was the worst of his career, he allowed a career-high 1.6 home runs per nine innings and his 6.2 strikeouts per nine was also a career-low mark.
But Lester’s 2019 production wasn’t much better. He still won 13 games and pitched 171.2 innings, although he allowed a league-high 205 hits. His WHIP rose to 1.50 and his 4.46 ERA was his highest since 2012.
Looking more closely at those two seasons, though, there are signs Lester still has something to give. His inconsistency inflated his statistics. In 43 games in 2019 and 2020, he allowed one run or fewer 16 times. The southpaw gave up five runs or more another 14 times.
Lester won’t be the only pitcher on the staff looking for a bounce-back year.
Strasburg pitched just five innings in 2020 before season-ending carpal tunnel surgery. Scherzer saw his WHIP increase to 1.38, and Corbin — who, at 31, is the youngest of the group — saw his fastball drop almost 2 mph in velocity.
In other words, there’s fluctuation season-to-season for the best of arms. Over Lester’s career, he’s managed to redefine himself time and again, altering the way he works to find outs.
He may have to do so again, perhaps building off a 2020 season in which he forced weak contact on his best pitches. According to FanGraphs, 47% of the balls in play last season off Lester were ground balls, and a career-low 16.8% were line drives.
Lester is no longer the pitcher who led the Red Sox to two World Series championships in 2007 or 2013, or the hurler who helped end Chicago’s title drought in 2016.
But he doesn’t need to be, either. Not as the fourth fiddle in a band full of Stradivariuses.
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