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Know your opening night foe: Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs

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Wainwright v. Lester, 7:05 PM CST, Wrigley Field, Chicago, IL: ESPN2.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In roughly 83 hours (from when this article was published), the defending National League Central champion St. Louis Cardinals will open the MLB season against the Chicago Cubs at a bleacher-less Wrigley Field. While the Cubs are the "we will look really cool/smart if they actually do end up winning" pick by a certain national publication, most others realize that, while significantly better than they have been in quite some time, the North Siders are still at least a year away from competing for a World Series title, and the Chicago front office seems to agree given the recent demotions of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell.

On the mound for the Cubs will be their newly-signed, $155-million-man, Jon Lester. Good news for the Cardinals is that Lester (via Carrie Muskat of MLB.com) "wasn't too pleased with his final tuneup for Opening Night, but he hopes the excitement of the beginning of the season can help him." Quotes such as this one cannot be too comforting for the Cubs considering the 31-year-old has already been dealing with "dead" arm this spring. Yet, this isn't Lester's first opening day and he knows his arm/stuff better than anyone else, so I'm sure he will be prepared and ready come game time on Sunday night.

Over the course of the offseason, much has been made about the Cardinals having a projected starting lineup that is "too lefty-heavy"—leaving them vulnerable to left-handed starting pitchers like Lester. To be honest, I'm not all that worried about the lineup being "lefty-heavy" because as with most good pitchers, most good hitters are successful regardless of their opponent's handedness. Sure, it would be ideal if Jason Heyward and Matt Adams were able to show improvement against lefties, but even then, they only make up two spots in the lineup, and if the team is facing a particularly tough LHP, there are right-handed complements available off the bench (i.e. Randal Grichuk, Mark Reynolds). A look at Lester's career splits should quell some of these fears as well:

Career splits (9 years)

Handedness AVG OBP SLG K% BB% HR/FB
LHB .240 .300 .380 23.7% 6.8% 10.6%
RHB .247 .319 .378 21.2% 8.6% 9.1%

As you can see, overall, Lester is a really good pitcher (a career ERA and FIP of 3.58 should be plenty indicative of that), regardless of the handedness of the batter. He wouldn't have received $155 million this offseason if this was not the case. While left-handers strike out more and walk less, they actually have a very slightly higher slugging percentage, which is further clarified by a higher HR/FB ratio (10.6% versus 9.1%). Regardless, there really isn't a drastic split between lefties and righties against Lester, at least not compared to what we see from a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw. I think Lester's repertoire can help explain why this is the case, speaking of which:

Repertoire

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Dragless H. mov. (in.) Dragless V. mov. + gravity (in.)
Fourseamer 39.22% 93.66 8.22 -14.48
Sinker 12.74% 92.26 13.61 -22.74
Changeup 7.88% 85.80 13.90 -28.91
Curveball 15.56% 76.85 -9.12 -49.77
Cutter 24.58% 89.62 -0.92 -24.40

Lester is very clearly a pitcher who relies on his hard stuff (~90 MPH or faster)—throwing his fourseamer, sinker, and cutter ~77% of the time. This is one of the main reasons why I don't think there is too much of a lefty/righty split against him. Sure, he has a devastating curveball with two-plane break (left-to-right, down), but his use of it is defined by two situations (and subsequently easier to pick up on as a hitter): A) When he is ahead in the count or B) On the first pitch.

In fact, when Lester is behind in the count, the curve is a pitch he looks to less than 5% of the time, regardless of the batter's handedness. On 2-0 and 3-0 counts last season, hitters could completely eliminate changeup and curveball from the equation as Lester went exclusively fourseam, cutter, sinker, in that order of frequency. This is definitely something to keep an eye on Sunday night, especially if Lester's control remains slightly out of tune (and of note, he wasn't the "sharpest" in his final spring tuneup).

Pitch location

Lester Locations

In terms of pitch location, the heat maps seen above (thank you, BrooksBaseball) make it pretty clear what Lester wants to do with his fastball, cutter, and sinker (the backbone of his repertoire): attack lefties away and bust righties inside. Given that Lester's hottest zones are outside of the strike zone completely, Cardinal hitters should probably utilize the Matt Carpenter approach early in the game.

Bottom line

Cardinal hitters have had only 74 career regular-season at bats against Lester, with Mark Reynolds and Jhonny Peralta making up the majority (53 ABs). While Lester is left-handed and the St. Louis lineup projects to be "lefty-heavy," I wouldn't make too much of this when determining how he matches up against the Cardinals. Of course, he is a really good pitcher (one of the best in the league), but his repertoire that is reliant on hard stuff and the hopeful emergence of age-related decline (toward the middle/end of his current deal) will make Lester a fun foe for the Cardinals over the next six years. Here's to hoping the Cardinals can set the tone for this matchup on Sunday night.