After strong year, Lester rewarded by Cubs

Steve Bisig/USA Today

Jon Lester’s 1.80 ERA from June 12 on was the best in the American League.Jon Lester, regarded as one of the two biggest catches in this year's free agent pool, agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night. The deal reportedly could be worth $170 million in light of a vesting option for a seventh year.

Excelled in 2014

Lester is coming off the best season of his career. He posted career bests in ERA (2.46), WHIP (1.10) and K/BB ratio (4.6). He had a 3.52 ERA in his first 13 starts and then closed the season with a 1.80 ERA in his last 19 starts. The 1.80 ERA was second-best in the majors from June 12 on, trailing Clayton Kershaw's 1.32.

Jon Lester Last Season

Lester continued in 2014 a trend that began in 2012. That year, he posted a 4.82 ERA in more than 200 innings pitched. He improved in 2013 – to a 3.75 ERA – before he re-established himself as an ace in 2014 with a 2.46 ERA.

What was behind this renaissance?

Improved strikeout and walk rates: Lester has steadily improved his strikeout rate over the last three years – from 19 percent to 20 percent to 25 percent in 2014 – and reduced his walk rate – from 8.0 percent in 2012 to 5.4 percent last season.

Fewer home runs: In 2012, he allowed 25 home runs (3.2 percent of the batters he faced). In 2014, that was down to 16 (1.9 percent).

Better versus right-handed hitters: Since 2012, Lester has lowered his batting average allowed against right-handed hitters by 48 points and lowered his OPS allowed by nearly 170 points.

Jon Lester vs Right-Handed Batters
Last 3 Seasons

Let’s examine that last point more closely. Lester used to be unsuccessful throwing his fastball inside to righties. Not anymore. He has increased the frequency with which he’s throwing inside to righties, and he’s having more success when he does.

Right-handed batters hit .251 against his fastball on the inner half in 2014, a far cry from 2012 (.315) and 2013 (.297).

The contract

Largest Free Agent Contract for Pitcher By Total Value in MLB History

Lester and fellow free agent Max Scherzer were widely regarded as capable of threatening the record for largest contract issued to a free agent pitcher. The $155 million deal Lester agreed to is the largest contract issued by the Cubs and trails only the contract of CC Sabathia for the largest total value of a contract issued to a free agent pitcher. Lester's average salary in the reported deal is $25.8 million, which would be the biggest given to a free agent pitcher on a multiyear deal in history.

The Cubs' 73-89 record in 2014 represented another sub-.500 season, but it was a 12-win improvement from two 2012. Armed with well-regarded prospects, with Lester heading the pitching rotation and with Joe Maddon as manager, Cubs fans appear to have reason for hope.