They say you only get one chance to make a first impression, but nobody says you can’t recover from making a bad first impression.

That’s what the Chicago Cubs must be telling themselves about Jon Lester‘s bad first impression, anyway. And fortunately for them, their $155 million man should allow them to breathe easy before long.

In fairness, the Cubs are in a pretty good place at the moment. Arismendy Alcantara’s walk-off single in the 10th inning of Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Reds gave the Cubs a 7-6 victory and ran their record to 4-2. It’s early yet, but they’re in first place in the NL Central. That calls for much rejoicing.

[Pauses for cries of “Huzzah!”]

OK, now let’s talk about Lester.

The 31-year-old lefty made his second start in a Cubs uniform on Monday night, and it didn’t go so well. He lasted six innings, but gave up six earned runs on 10 hits. After his Opening Night flop against the St. Louis Cardinals, he’s now allowed nine earned runs on 18 hits in 10.1 innings pitched. 

So, that’s not good. But just as noteworthy as Lester’s bad pitching on Monday night is the bad…well, terrible throw he made to first base in the second inning. Courtesy of MLB GIFs:

That throw served as a reminder not just that Lester hadn’t even made a pickoff throw to first in two years, but also clarification for why it had been so long. He’s got the yips, and he’s got ’em bad.

So, it doesn’t look good. Lester is in the first year of a seven-year, $155 million contract, and right now he looks like a bad pitcher who’s doomed to be torn apart by opposing baserunners.

But here’s one reason not to worry: It’s the 13th of April. The season is barely a week old. We’re in the very heart of Small Sample Size County, people.

While that’s the big reason not to worry too much about Lester, it’s not the only one.

Let’s start with Lester’s problems with throwing to first base. It looks like a particularly bad problem now, and it’s easy to trace it back to the Kansas City Royals running wild on him in last year’s American League Wild Card Game. Right now, it looks like a problem he can’t possibly succeed with.

But we know that’s not true.

Lester just posted a 2.46 ERA in 2014 despite not making a single pickoff throw to first. At least part of the reason why is because stolen bases actually weren’t too bad of a problem. Would-be base stealers were successful 24 percent of the time against him, which was three ticks better than league average.

Part of the explanation is David Ross, who is Lester’s personal catcher in Chicago just as he was in Boston. He’s long been outstanding at controlling the running game, and he could once again help keep runners in check if Lester chooses to make Monday night the extent of his pickoff experimentation.

What could really help Lester’s problem with the yips go away, however, is if he simply stops allowing so many baserunners. And yes, there’s hope there too.

If nothing else, Lester is due for some good luck. He’s been fine in the strikeout (8.7 K/9) and walk (1.7 BB/9) departments so far, but FanGraphs puts his batting average on balls in play at .486. Basically half the balls in play against Lester have found holes in the defense. “Unsustainable” is a good word for that.

Of course, Lester can help himself by pitching better. To this end, he’s actually making some strides.

One thing that was readily apparent in Lester’s Opening Night start against the Cardinals was that he didn’t have his best stuff. As the man himself put it to The Associated Press, his stuff was “flat.”

That showed up in Lester’s velocity readings, as Brooks Baseball can show his stuff was about a mile per hour slower than it had been in 2014.

But this brings us to some good news, which is pictured here:

On Monday night against the Reds, Lester’s velocity was back up to roughly where it was in 2014. That makes it look like he wasn’t at full strength when he started on Opening Night, which makes perfect sense in light of how his spring training was cut short by a dead arm.

Lester also threw more first-pitch strikes, going from 50 percent against the Cardinals to 59 percent against the Reds. That’s right on the border of last year’s career-best rate of 61.2 percent, so he more or less reverted back to his 2014 self in that department as well.

Lastly, it also appears Lester made one other improvement for which he had been striving.

After his first start, one of Lester’s biggest complaints about his performance was that he was up in the zone too much, telling Carrie Muskat of “It’s still getting the ball down in the zone, regardless of who you’re pitching against. I just didn’t do that tonight.”

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, you can see what he was talking about:

That’s a lot of pitches in the upper-two thirds of the zone and beyond. Exactly 46.1 percent, according to Baseball Savant, which is a bit high knowing that only 42.1 percent of Lester’s pitches in 2014 found their way into those zones.

But now take a look at Lester’s locations from Monday night:

Comparatively, Lester did indeed get better at keeping the ball down. He was a bit too much in the middle at times, but he didn’t serve up quite as many meatballs as he did against the Cardinals.

Though Lester finished with worse results, he actually pitched better against the Reds than he did against the Cardinals. He was throwing harder, got ahead of more hitters and was better at keeping the ball out of the happy zone. 

But this is not to suggest that Lester got back to being exactly the pitcher he was during his dominant 2014 season, mind you.

Lester’s 2014 dominance stemmed largely from his suddenly masterful command on and around the corners of the strike zone, and in how he made that command all the more effective through sequencing. So far this season, Lester has only shown flashes of these two abilities.

Also, there is something to be said for how aggressive hitters have been against Lester in the early going. FanGraphs says the Cardinals swung at 54 percent of his pitches on Opening Night, and Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus saw the pattern continue in distressing fashion Monday night:

This, granted, could simply be because Lester’s command has been off in the early going. But if it is because hitters have a book on him, then it’s on Lester to change the book.

For now, it’s good enough that he doesn’t look like he’s broken. Problems that plagued him in his first start were taken care of in his second, and his issues with throws to first base should go back to being a secondary concern once his pitching and a bit of better luck start keeping runners off the basepaths.

So don’t call Lester a $155 million bust just yet. It’s a bit early for that, and he’s hardly committed to that path.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.

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