Lester, Baez playing like all-stars for Chicago Cubs

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester throws to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester throws to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

 
 
Updated 6/27/2018 6:33 PM

Javier Baez and Jon Lester probably punched their tickets to the All-Star Game with their performances in Tuesday night's 9-4 victory by the Chicago Cubs over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Baez had himself a night, hitting a pair of homers, including a grand slam. Lester notched his 10th victory of the season, gutting out 5 innings of 4-hit, 2-run ball. That left him with a record of 10-2 with a 2.18 ERA.

 

Each player has been a godsend for the Cubs on his respective side of the ball.

It's Baez, and not Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo, who has carried the offensive load this year. Entering Wednesday night's game, Baez led the Cubs in home runs (16), RBI (56) and hits (75) while putting up a line of .276/.315/.555 for an OPS of .870.

"I've been saying it for a couple years, the moment he stops swinging at sliders in the dirt, he becomes Manny Ramirez," manager Joe Maddon said after Baez's performance Tuesday. "He's getting closer, except I think he's a better defender than Manny was -- and a baserunner.

"There isn't anything (Baez) can't do. He has his head on a swivel; he sees things other guys don't."

As for Lester, he has been the horse and the undisputed ace of the starting rotation. He is into the back half of his six-year, $155 million contract, a contract that he long ago began "living up to" or "earning."

Lester, 34, is 10-2 with a 2.18 ERA, a WHIP of 1.08 and an ERA-plus of 190. He is tied for the league lead in wins with Washington's Max Scherzer, and either of the two could be in line to start the July 17 All-Star Game at Nationals Park. Lester's ERA was fourth in the NL entering Wednesday.

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That said, the rest of the Cubs' rotation needs to step up because there are some cautionary tales in the numbers with Lester. The gap between his ERA and his fielding independent pitching (scaled to ERA and essentially taking out walks, strikeouts and home runs) is wide, with his FIP being 4.08.

Lester's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .234 and suggests that his defense is catching a lot of those balls put into play.

If the BABIP starts to "normalize" toward .300 -- which ends up being about the league average every year -- Lester's win-loss record and ERA could take hits.

Stats site FanGraphs.com pointed out an interesting fact before Tuesday's start, when Lester's ERA was 2.10 and his FIP was 4.19.

"The 2.09 runs per nine differential between his ERA and FIP isn't just the majors' largest this season, it's the largest from an ERA qualifier since 1901," wrote Jay Jaffe in an article titled "Jon Lester's high-wire act."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As for the things Lester can control, his strikeouts per 9 innings are 7.01, his lowest since the rate was 7.47 in 2013. The walks per 9 are up a tick from last year's 2.99 to 3.03 last year. But the home runs per 9 are below 1.00, at 0.95.

Lester's hard contact rate is up, and his soft contact rate is down, but perhaps thanks to some friendly winds at Wrigley Field, the flyballs are not leaving the yard.

As things heat up over the summer, it will be interesting to watch the numbers and to see if Lester can make a run at 20 wins and Cy Young consideration or whether the dreaded "regression" occurs.

Until then, though, he has earned an all-star berth.

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