With brilliant Game 5, Lester asserts place among postseason's elite pitchers

1:05 | MLB
Cubs advance to World Series for first time since 1945
Friday October 21st, 2016

On Thursday night, the Dodgers tried to psych Jon Lester out by showing bunt often and taking long leads when they did get on base, but the 32-year-old lefty was largely unfazed. His seven-inning, one-run performance in NLCS Game 5 padded an already-impressive postseason resumé. It’s worth appreciating the niche he’s carved out among the era's top postseason pitchers.

This October, Lester has made three starts, pitching brilliantly in all of them. In the Division Series opener against the Giants on Oct. 7, he spun eight innings of shutout ball, allowing only five hits (four singles and a double) and striking out five without walking a batter. Only three Giants reached scoring position, all with two outs; the Cubs won that game, 1–0, on Javier Baez's eighth-inning solo homer off Johnny Cueto.

In the NLCS opener, the Dodgers hit a few balls hard early in the game, but Lester went six innings and allowed just one run via Andre Ethier's pinch-homer. He yielded just three other hits, all singles, and walked one, striking out three. The Dodgers had only one inning in which they got runners in scoring position against him. He threw just 77 pitches that night, given the hook in favor of a pinch-hitter while leading, 3–1.

On Thursday night, the Dodgers came in with a clear plan to distract Lester, with manager Dave Roberts coming out and saying as much. Via The New York Times' Billy Witz:

“We all see that, and they know that—that he doesn’t like throwing the ball… Whatever you want to call it, he just doesn’t feel comfortable throwing the baseball, so obviously, as good of a pitcher as he is, we’re going to get huge leads and try to bunt on them and try to get in his psyche a little bit.”

The Dodgers squared around to bunt at least 10 times. Two of them were by leadoff hitter Kiké Hernandez, but the four-pitch walk he drew to open the first inning was the only one Lester issued all night. When the Dodgers did bunt, they grounded out twice: In the second, Lester threw a bounce-pass to first base on Joc Pederson's bunt; in the seventh, he let the ball pass by the mound for Baez to make a great play on Adrian Gonzalez. The Dodgers took long leads when they got on base, and Lester refused to throw over, but they only stole twice against him. Justin Turner's two-out steal of second in the third inning went for naught, and Howie Kendrick's steal of third led to a run, but only after an initial out call on the steal was overturned via instant replay.

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All told, Lester has thrown 21 innings this postseason and allowed just two runs for an 0.86 ERA. That's enough to give him a spot among the top single-season performances in the wild-card era, using a 20-inning cutoff.

player team ip era
Matt Cain 2010 Giants 21 1/3 0.00
Kenny Rogers 2006 Tigers 23 0.00
Justin Verlander 2013 Tigers 23 0.39
Jon Lester 2016 Cubs 21 0.86
Tom Glavine 2001 Braves 20 0.90
John Smoltz 1996 Braves 38 0.95
Madison Bumgarner 2014 Giants 52 2/3 1.03
Ryan Vogelsong 2012 Giants 24 2/3 1.09
Curt Schilling 2001 Diamondbacks 48 1/3 1.12
Josh Beckett 2007 Red Sox 30 1.20
Orlando Hernandez 1999 Yankees 30 1.20

That's good company, though even if the Cubs advance and Lester winds up making two more starts in the World Series, he's unlikely to approach the innings totals of Smoltz, let alone Bumgarner and Schilling. Cubs manager Joe Madon hasn't allowed him to face more than 27 batters—three times through the order—this October regardless of pitch counts, and with good reason: Much of the damage done against Lester in the 2014 and '15 playoffs came after the 27-batter point. Most notably, three of the four Royals he faced for the fourth time in the 2014 AL wild-card game reached base and scored, accounting for half of his six runs allowed and abetting Kansas City's amazing comeback.

Even with that collapse in his portfolio, Lester has several outstanding postseason starts to look back upon. In 2007, his second season with the Red Sox, the 23-year-old southpaw sealed a World Series sweep with 5 2/3 shutout innings against the Rockies in Game 4, his first postseason start and first outing in 11 days. He allowed one run (none earned) in 14 innings against the Angels in a pair of 2008 Division Series starts, including the clincher, and went seven innings and allowed three runs against the Rays in Game 7 of the ALCS, though Boston lost, 3–1. He didn't allow more than two runs in any of his five starts for the Sox in the 2013 postseason and allowed just one run in 15 1/3 innings over two World Series starts against the Cardinals.

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In all, Lester has made 17 postseason starts (12 quality) and two relief appearances totaling 119 innings en route to a 2.50 ERA. Here's how that stacks up among wild-card era pitchers with at least 50 innings.

player years ip era
Mariano Rivera 1995–2011 (16) 141 0.70
Matt Cain 2010–12 (2) 51 1/3 2.10
Madison Bumgarner 2010–16 (4) 102 1/3 2.11
Curt Schilling 2001–07 (4) 102 2.12
Tim Lincecum 2010–14 (3) 56 1/3 2.40
Jon Lester 2007–16 (7) 119 2.50
Cliff Lee 2009–11 (3) 82 2.52
Orlando Hernandez 1998–2005 (7) 106 2.55
Doug Fister 2011–14 (4) 55 1/3 2.60
Jeff Nelson 1995–2003 (8) 54 1/3 2.65

As you can see, if we boost the innings threshold, he'd rank even higher: With an 80-inning cutoff, he still makes the top 10.

player years ip era
Mariano Rivera 1995–2011 (16) 141 0.70
Christy Mathewson 1905–13 (4) 101 2/3 1.06
Waite Hoyt 1921–31 (7) 83 2/3 1.83
Bob Gibson 1964–68 (3) 81 1.89
Madison Bumgarner 2010–16 (4) 102 1/3 2.11
Curt Schilling 1993–2007 (5) 133 1/3 2.23
Chief Bender 1905–14 (5) 85 2.44
Dave McNally 1966–74 (6) 90 1/3 2.49
Jon Lester 2007–16 (7) 119 2.50
Cliff Lee 2009–11 (3) 82 2.52

Obviously, that list is tilted toward the division play era, but it's still impressive. Considering only Lester's World Series body of work (one run allowed in 21 innings) and a 20-inning cutoff, his 0.43 ERA trails only Bumgarner's (0.25 in 36 innings from 2010 to '14) and that of the Reds' Jack Billingham (0.36 in 25 1/3 innings from 1972 to '76). Small sample sizes, sure, but that’s true for everyone under consideration. Only four of the top 25 pitchers at that 20-inning cutoff have at least 40 World Series innings, with Sandy Koufax (0.95 in 57 innings) and Christy Mathewson (1.06 in 101 2/3 innings) the top two—and those inning totals represent less than a third of a single-season workload.

Given that Lester's team is one win away from another trip to the World Series and that the Cubs figure to remain among the NL's contenders for the foreseeable future thanks to their young nucleus and wealth of resources, we could see him continuing to add to these numbers. But even if the Cubs wind up being dispatched by the Dodgers—only nine postseason teams have won Games 6 and 7 in best-of-sevens on the road, so those are long odds—Lester already ranks among October's elite.

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