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Jon Lester And The Best Pitching Seasons In Modern Cubs History

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The Cubs' newest pitcher is good. Just how good is he in comparison to the best pitchers the Cubs have had in recent years?

Photo: Getty Images. Photo illustration: Mike Bojanowski

Jon Lester has been a fulltime rotation starter, posting 31 or more starts each year, for the last seven seasons. In five of those seasons, he has put together excellent work that resulted in a bWAR of 4.4 or higher. That includes his 2014 season split between the Red Sox and Athletics, where his combined performance resulted in 4.6 bWAR. That ranked seventh among all American League pitchers.

Jake Arrieta posted 5.3 bWAR for the Cubs in 2014, the best bWAR figure for a Cubs starter since Ryan Dempster's 7.0 bWAR season in 2008.

How would Lester's best seasons rate in Cubs history? Here are all the Cubs starters who have had a 4.4 bWAR year or better since 1969 -- the divisional play era:

Rk Player WAR Year Age Tm Lg
1 Fergie Jenkins 10.3 1971 28 CHC NL
2 Rick Reuschel 9.4 1977 28 CHC NL
3 Greg Maddux 9.2 1992 26 CHC NL
4 Bill Hands 8.4 1969 29 CHC NL
5 Mark Prior 7.4 2003 22 CHC NL
6 Fergie Jenkins 7.3 1970 27 CHC NL
7 Fergie Jenkins 7.2 1969 26 CHC NL
8 Ryan Dempster 7.0 2008 31 CHC NL
9 Carlos Zambrano 6.7 2004 23 CHC NL
10 Ken Holtzman 6.4 1970 24 CHC NL
11 Kerry Wood 6.2 2003 26 CHC NL
12 Rick Sutcliffe 6.1 1987 31 CHC NL
13 Fergie Jenkins 5.9 1972 29 CHC NL
14 Milt Pappas 5.9 1971 32 CHC NL
15 Rick Reuschel 5.8 1973 24 CHC NL
16 Rick Reuschel 5.7 1980 31 CHC NL
17 Rick Reuschel 5.7 1979 30 CHC NL
18 Carlos Zambrano 5.6 2005 24 CHC NL
19 Carlos Zambrano 5.5 2003 22 CHC NL
20 Mike Morgan 5.5 1992 32 CHC NL
21 Rick Reuschel 5.5 1978 29 CHC NL
22 Jake Arrieta 5.3 2014 28 CHC NL
23 Carlos Zambrano 5.2 2006 25 CHC NL
24 Greg Maddux 5.2 1988 22 CHC NL
25 Ray Burris 5.2 1976 25 CHC NL
Rk Player WAR Year Age Tm Lg
26 Bill Hands 5.2 1970 30 CHC NL
27 Burt Hooton 5.1 1972 22 CHC NL
28 Ted Lilly 5.0 2009 33 CHC NL
29 Greg Maddux 5.0 1989 23 CHC NL
30 Rick Reuschel 4.7 1976 27 CHC NL
31 Mike Harkey 4.6 1990 23 CHC NL
32 Dennis Eckersley 4.6 1985 30 CHC NL
33 Ken Holtzman 4.5 1969 23 CHC NL
34 Travis Wood 4.4 2013 26 CHC NL
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/3/2015.

As you can see in the table, the only Cubs pitchers who have as many 4.4 bWAR seasons (or more) than Lester over the last seven years are Rick Reuschel (six such years) and Carlos Zambrano (five). Fergie Jenkins shows up with four.

Lester's two best years by this measure -- 6.3 bWAR in 2009, 6.1 bWAR in 2008 -- would rank 11th and 12th on this list, and in general, when the Cubs have had a starting pitcher with a year that good, they have at least had a winning season and there are several playoff years near the top of that list. You have to go down to 15th place (Reuschel, 5.9 bWAR in 1973) to find a season like that in which the Cubs didn't have a winning record. Six of the 34 pitching seasons on the table above were posted by pitchers the same age (31) as Lester, or older.

Obviously, putting together a team with a winning record is much more complicated than simply having one dominant starter. But I think you can see by the list above that having a starting pitcher who can put up numbers like Lester can increases the chances of having at least a winning season, if not getting into marginal playoff contention. Presuming Arrieta can repeat his performance of 2014, the Cubs will have two such starters.

In an era where pitching appears to be more and more dominant, it looks like the Cubs have made the right move.

At 1 p.m. CT today, I'll have a similar look at the best batting seasons in modern Cubs history.