John Lester isn’t budging from his goal of throwing 200 innings in 2018, even though the evolution of the game suggests he may want to lower his sights.
But good luck telling Lester what to do.
The Cubs’ elder statesman and Opening Day starter doesn’t care about the analytics that tell managers it’s time for a fresh arm. He just wants the ball.
“I’m getting on the backside of everything, and I’m kind of a dinosaur when it comes to a lot of things,” Lester, 34, said. “I still think 200 innings from your starter is what you’d try to expect from him.”
In 1998, 56 starters threw 200 or more innings, led by Curt Schilling’s 268 2/3. Ten years later, the total was down to 34, led by CC Sabathia’s 253.
And by 2017, only 15 starters threw 200 or more innings, with Red Sox ace Chris Sale leading the way with 214 1/3.
“Think about that,” former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said. “That’s one guy on every two teams.”
While 200-inning pitchers may be a dying breed, Lester isn’t going down without a fight. Manager Joe Maddon may laud his starters for all wanting to throw 200 innings, but when he’s making decisions late in a game, their prerogative will not be on his mind.
Lester pitched 180 2/3 innings in 2017, plus 14 1/3 in the postseason in two starts and one relief appearance. He spent time on the disabled list with shoulder soreness in late August, had two horrific starts of less than two innings, and failed to last seven innings in any of his last 10 starts after July 27, which kept him under 200 for only the second time in 10 full seasons.
“I didn’t do that last year, so in my mind I let the team down,” Lester said of missing the 200 mark. “The one thing I’ve always tried to do is be there every 5 days. They know I’ll run out there and pitch. I wasn’t able to do that.”
The Cubs need a strong year from Lester to get back to the World Series, but they also need him strong for October. While Dempster, Lester and others still look at 200 innings as every starter’s benchmark, trends suggest teams are removing starters earlier than ever and going with fresher bullpen arms.
Whether that’s good for the game is open to debate. Lester called it a “terrible” trend.
“That puts too much pressure on your bullpen,” he said. “That means you’re using them more. The bad thing about those guys is they’re on call every night.
“The playoffs are a different animal, and you throw [game plans] out the window. What you do in the playoffs is not what you do in the season. The season is too long to rely on your starters every night to go [only] five, maybe six [innings]. A starter needs to be more accountable and go deeper into games.
“Whether people are going to agree with me or not [about] the new age of the game, I think everything goes in cycles and it will all come back. But I just don’t think, out of a No. 1 or No. 2 guy, that 170 innings is enough.”
Dempster, now a special assistant to Cubs President Theo Epstein and an MLB Network analyst, understands the game is changing because of the “efficiency of bullpens,” even as he admits he never wanted to come out.
“I’m a strong advocate that [starters are] always capable of doing more,” he said. “If I go 200 innings, that means I’m pitching close to seven innings every start and I’m giving the bullpen a break. As a player, I was always like, ‘No, let me pitch. I’m fine.’
“But over the years, maybe there are times to back off, get a breather. Lester has thrown in three LCSes and a World Series in the last three years and another World Series in 2013. So that’s 4 out of 5 years with only one October off, and even in ’14 he started the wild-card game with Oakland.
“As you get older,” he said, “to take a breather every once in a while is OK.”
The 10-day disabled list gives teams a chance to give starters a break without missing much time. Dempster pointed out John Lackey recovered nicely in the second half after his DL stint last July.
Lester has thrown 106 postseason innings since 2013.
Sale, like Lester, is a workhorse who never wants to be removed. But he has a 3.78 career ERA in September, and looked out of gas in the AL Division Series last October, causing him to rethink his game plan for 2018.
“Anytime you have an idea, you better have some facts or some kind of plan,” Sale told the Boston Globe. “You better have an outcome. If you present something to somebody and you don’t have anything to back it up, it’s not going to stand.”
It seems doubtful Lester will feel he needs a “breather” during the 2018 season. But he also points out the strike zone has changed since the days when top starters regularly threw well over 200 innings.
The smaller zone usually means more pitches are needed to get through an inning, and with stricter pitch-count limits of around 100 to 115 these days, that means fewer innings for starters, who often get hooked whether they’re still efficient or not.
“Not to take away from any of those guys and how good they were, but you could pull up some video of these guys pitching, and the strike zone was a little different,” Lester said. “The game evolves. It changes.”
The dinosaurs are becoming extinct, but Lester keeps swimming against the tide.
Maybe one day he will be the last of his breed.