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Never a reason to worry about Lester

Cubs lefty dealt with some bad luck before scoreless start vs. Brewers @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Sure, the ERA looks a little bloated, to find a kindly way to ask, "What the heck is wrong with this guy?''

We recognize that everyone likes to have something silly to freak out about. But come on, Cub fans, were you really worried about Jon Lester?

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CHICAGO -- Sure, the ERA looks a little bloated, to find a kindly way to ask, "What the heck is wrong with this guy?''

We recognize that everyone likes to have something silly to freak out about. But come on, Cub fans, were you really worried about Jon Lester?

View Full Game Coverage

Lester had not hit the ground running since he came to Chicago. No one knew that more than he did. But if you were paying close attention, you didn't need to see the seven shutout innings from Lester on Friday to know that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein's biggest investment for the club would pay off.

The 31-year-old Lester pitched out of tight spots in the second and third innings before cruising through a Milwaukee lineup that has struggled against left-handers this season. He had thrown only 90 pitches when manager Joe Maddon turned to the bullpen to nail down a 1-0 win that raised the Cubs' record to 13-8.

Some, perhaps even including Lester, will come to look back on this outing in which he retired 14 of the last 15 hitters he faced as a turning point in his 2015 season. But before facing Ryan Braun & Co., Lester had piled up 24 strikeouts against only five walks in his 21 2/3 innings. He had allowed 15 runs -- the same total as in a run of 10 starts covering 74 1/3 innings last summer with the Red Sox and A's -- but enough secondary signs were in place to show that he was just fine.

The Brewers barely acknowledged Lester's April troubles when they prepared to face him.

"No, not at all, man," Braun said. "That guy has a track record of being one of the best pitchers in baseball, and regardless of what his numbers are right now, you know somehow, some way, he'll end up somewhere close to where he typically is. He's got great stuff. [He's a] great pitcher."

Video: MIL@CHC: Lester shuts out Brewers over seven

Lester held the struggling Crew to three hits and one walk while striking out four. He was asked afterward if he had been unlucky in April.

"No," Lester said. "I think luck's what you make of it."

Lester's manager sees it differently. Unlike Lester, Maddon pays attention to baseball's metrics. He had read reports telling him that Lester was more like any pitcher getting a raw deal from the baseball gods than a big-ticket free agent struggling to justify a huge contract.

"That's what I've been focusing on, exactly," Maddon said. "You look at [the secondary numbers] and there's a tremendous disconnect between missing bats and the balls that are put in play, and all of a sudden they're scoring runs against him. You know that's going to even out and beyond that in a positive way. But as I look at the [stats], I was looking at the same stuff that you're talking about. There's a disconnect right there that's going to balance back in our favor."

All Lester needs is to keep going out there and pitching like he has so far. He'll wind up with his usual 210 innings and an ERA somewhere in the top third of Major League starters, like he usually does.

Lester isn't known for starting out hot. He's gone 13-15 with a 4.05 career ERA in March/April, and then hits the stride that landed him the $155 million contract -- 104-54 with a 3.51 ERA in the last five months of the season.

While Lester has had his issues early in the season -- the stolen bases and an increase in line drives, most notably -- he's also been unfortunate. While he's allowed a .304 batting average on balls in play throughout his career, his BABIP this season was .424 before Friday.

Perhaps the best measure of why Cub fans should copy Epstein and not be too concerned about Lester is his Fielding Independent Pitching figure of 2.27 through his first four starts. That was 3.96 below his 6.23 ERA, the biggest disparity between FIP and ERA among Major League starters.

FIP is designed to strip out the impact of fielding and luck on ERA. It concerns itself only with plays that do not involve fielders -- home runs, walks, hit-by-pitches and strikeouts -- and combines those totals with league average results on balls in play and league average timing.

The 10 pitchers who had been the unluckiest entering Friday (as measured by the difference in FIP and ERA) were Lester, David Buchanan, Clay Buchholz, Jeff Locke, Jose Quintana, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Kyle Hendricks, CC Sabathia and Jeremy Hellickson.

That 2.27 FIP Lester brought into the start against the Brewers ranked seventh overall in the Majors, behind only Max Scherzer, Collin McHugh, Adam Wainwright, Gerrit Cole, Michael Pineda and Felix Hernandez. Not that Lester would know anything about it.

For one thing, Lester is the father of two young children. He said Friday he can't really comment on the buzz the Cubs are creating around town because he hardly ever gets out.

And for another thing, Lester is not a big reader of Bill James or any of baseball's statistical analysts.

"No, I'm old-fashioned," Lester said. "I like [to] look up at a batter's average, home runs and RBIs. You look at the pitcher's ERA, strikeouts and walks. I'm just old-fashioned that way. I like those stats. I think that tells everything."

Not that Lester wants to dump on Epstein, James or any of baseball's smart guys. He might be an old-school, hunting-and-fishing sort of ballplayer, but he's also savvy enough to value the front-office partnerships he's built.

"We're getting into a new age," Lester said. "That's fine. But, as far as me, no, I think you make your own luck. It comes down to pitching better, executing better and you make your own luck at the end of the day."

There are going to be days when Lester is both lucky and good, and those will be good times to be at Wrigley Field.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago Cubs, Jon Lester