Stats matter, about that there can be no debate. When painting the picture of a player, however, numbers are but the dots we connect to establish a basic outline. The color and shading come from all the things you can’t measure, stuff like personality and will and teamwork. A choice to argue for the superiority of metrics over immeasurables or vice versa is to choose to see only half the picture.
It’s when we close one eye that we miss seeing the value of players like David Ross and similar clubhouse leader types. Likewise, guys like Jon Lester and Jason Heyward may be held against impossibly high standards and thus colored with the wrong crayon. Since he signed the biggest contract in Cubs history (at the time), Lester has been saddled by the idea that he’s not worth the money.
The numbers alone will tell you that that’s simply not true, but a performance like what we saw from him Wednesday afternoon showed that Lester has the kind of guile you can’t measure. In the 2nd inning, he snagged a comebacker off the bat of Francisco Cervelli and found that the ball had wedged itself in the webbing of his glove. So what did he do about it?
If you felt a little deja vu tickling the back of your brain while watching this play, you’re not alone. That’s because Lester did pretty much the same thing just over a year ago.
In both cases, Anthony Rizzo had the presence of mind to drop his own glove in order to catch his pitcher’s. These are the kinds of plays that speak to the chemistry between these two players and to the understanding they’ve established in just a little over a season together. Lester has had some well-documented issues with throwing to bases, though both of the plays above were more the result of a glove that maybe needs to have its laces tightened up a little.
But what about the throw Lester spiked into the ground a couple weeks back that Rizzo had to cross the baseline into foul territory to field? Despite looking ugly as hell, that’s a play they’ve worked on. Well, kind of. Rather that yip the ball over his first baseman’s head, Lester explained that he’ll go low to limit potential mistakes. The best players find ways to win in spite of their shortcomings and it’s in those moments of duress when you see them use their grit to polish their image to high gloss shine.
As he worked himself out tight spots in the 4th and 5th innings Wednesday, it was impossible to look upon the gloriousity of Jon Lester without going at least partially blind.
With the Cubs up 3-0 on the strength of a Ben Zobrist home run, David Freese singled to right to open the frame. Starling Marte then walked on four pitches and Cervelli knocked the first offering of his at-bat into left to load the bases. Things got even more grim when Sean Rodriguez worked a 3-1 count and then proceeded to foul off three more pitches.
It looked for all the world as if Lester was melting down and that the Pirates would be able to take advantage and climb back into the game. Ah, but the crafty lefty was able to blow a fastball by everyone’s favorite puncher of Gatorade jugs to get the first out of the inning. Then he got Josh Harrison to fly out to shallow right before taking Gregory Polanco to a full count. Once more, Lester was able to induce a whiff, this time on a cutter.
The Pirates threatened again in the 5th when Jordy Mercer and Andrew McCutchen singled to put men at 1st and 3rd with only one out. All Lester did from there was strike both Freese and Starling Marte out to close the frame. The former K came on three pitches (two called, one swinging) and the latter was the result of an eight-pitch battle that saw Lester mix curves and fastballs before getting the whiff on a changeup.
While the stat line — 5.2 IP, 0 runs, 8 hits, 2 BB, 5 K — isn’t particularly awe-inspiring, it’s how and when Lester earned those totals that really tells the story. Four of his strikeouts came when the Cubs needed them most and when it appeared the pitcher was ready to fall apart. Rather than buckle, he buckled down. Instead of wilting, he willed himself to dig deep and find that extra gear in order to grind out the win.
Although a clutch player wouldn’t grind the gears, right? Anywho…
It’s kind of de rigueur among the stats set to poke fun at such cliched notions of performance, but it’s hard to deny that Lester was anything other than Grindy McGrinderton in Pittsburgh. The dude is incredibly talented and has the numbers to back it up, and his ability to remain calm under pressure is what allows him to continue leveraging said talent in difficult situations. That’s a trait he shares with his fellow top-of-the-rotation starters in Chicago, something that will never show up on a game score.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that only by embracing both the numerical and human aspects of a player’s performance can we truly get an idea for who and what he is on the diamond. The two sides of the game are not mutually exclusive and to dismiss either would be a mistake. Jon Lester’s outing on Wednesday is proof of that, and something tells me we’re going to see a lot more of this from him and from the Cubs as the season progresses.