Jon Lester: Projecting Baseball’s $155 Million Man

“You try to balance different factors. You wake up one day like ‘We’ve got to sign Lester,’ you wake up another day, ‘We’re never signing a pitcher in his thirties,’ and it’s an internal struggle. Jed and I had the back-and-forth with each other. We changed each other’s minds. It’s the process of getting the least bad answer.”

- Theo Epstein

In 2013, the Boston Red Sox offered Jon Lester a four-year, $70 million deal — one that hinged on what a computer system told them that a human being would be worth over the course of the next four years of his career. Theo Epstein had moved on to his next curse-breaking task in Chicago. Lester was about to embark into what is considered to be the danger zone of the baseball aging curve. Lester would be 30 during the coming season, and in the winter of 2014, Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer wouldn’t care.

To me, the trepidation that instinctively occurs when a front office sees that a starting pitcher is approaching 30 seems to be a rash and chaotic one. Of course it’s not completely unwarranted; years of watching and analyzing this sport have taught us to hold these hesitations in high regard. Peak age for a pitcher is around 30, and from there, the decline phase starts. The risk of injury becomes greater. Less playing time in the name of “preservation” quietly and more frequently creeps into conversations that are brought to the table.

With that sort of cursory point of view, the adage that pitchers in their 30s are the nucleus of a bad investment waiting to happen is enough to render anyone theoretically wary. Yet it makes one wonder: Now that the Cubs and Jon Lester are deeply entrenched in this 6-year contract that will take Lester into his age 36 season, a contract that often inspired a “we’ll think about those years when they get here” response from baseball folks, what does his trajectory statistically look like now that those years are here?

Based historically on pitchers of his age, with his number of innings, and of his caliber, what can baseball realistically expect from Jon Lester going forward in the remaining four season of his contract?

The answers to these questions found within the data is fascinating. My query returned 27 pitchers who were age 32, had pitched at least 2,000 innings, and had a DRA- of between 80 and 90 – the archetype of Jon Lester at this point in his life and career. I then looked at the next four years of these pitchers’ careers to see if they actually did decline enough for the trepidation of signing a deal to a 30-year-old pitcher to be truly warranted. Take a look at Lester’s career thus far vs. the comps of the other 27 pitchers:

Lester 2003.1 22.4% 6.5% 3.44 86 48.3
Comps 2489.1 19.5% 7.5% 3.26 86 57.4

As the data shows, Lester has been on par with the pitchers the query returned in all aspects. A bit of the data may be skewed due in part to the fact that Lester has thrown approximately 480 less innings than those in the median of pitchers the query returned, but the kernel to take away here is that these pitchers are in the same class as Lester,  thus rendering them viable predictors of what we should expect from this type of player. Now, let’s take a look at how these pitchers aged.

Age 33

  • 3 pitchers in the group have not yet reached their age 33 season yet (Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester).
  • 4 pitchers in the group threw 0 IP in their age 33 season due to injury (John Smoltz, Brett Saberhagen) or retirement (Don Drysdale, Sam McDowell).

Averages among non-injured pitchers

Comps 190.1 17.5 6.5% 3.54 86 3.7

Age 34

  • 4 pitchers in this group have not yet had their age 34 season (Grienke, Hamels, Lester, Justin Verlander).
  • 3 pitchers in the group threw 0 IP in age 34 season due to injury or retirement (Drysdale, Sam McDowell, Andy Messersmith).

Averages among non-injured pitchers

Comps 194.2 17.2 6.6% 3.46 91 3.8

Age 35

  • 4 pitchers in this group have not had their age 35 season yet (Grienke, Hamels, Lester, Verlander).
  • 5 pitchers in the group threw 0 IP in age 35 season due to injury (Floyd Bannister) or retirement (Javier Vazquez, Drysdale, McDowell, Messersmith, Dan Haren).

Averages among non-injured pitchers

Comps 191.2 17.9 6.6% 3.30 86 4.2

Age 36

  • 4 pitchers in this group have not had their age 36 season yet (Greinke, Hamels, Lester, Verlander, C.C. Sabathia).
  • 5 pitchers in this group threw 0 IP in age 36 season due to injury or retirement (Haren, Vazquez, Dwight Gooden, Drysdale, Mickey Lolich, McDowell, Messersmith, Chris Short).

Averages among non-injured pitchers

Comps 143.2 17.1 7.2% 3.42 89 2.9

The most important thing to note here is that glancing at these numbers, you’ll notice that these pitchers were remarkably consistent. Their WARP even spiked (.5) in their age 35 season. As the years progressed and less pitchers were in each comp group, the WARP tapered off, as well as the innings pitched, but the rest of the stats remain fairly comparable, laudable, and don’t see a drastic drop or fluctuation.

So what we see here is a very promising and reliable pattern: consistency. The next biggest question then becomes pitcher health. As we can see from each data set, less pitchers were included as each year went on. The most important take away from that is that most of these pitchers were excluded from the following years data set due to retirement, not injury. Only three pitchers over the course of their next four years missed a season due to injury.

John Smoltz went on to play 11 more successful years in the major leagues including logging three seasons in which he pitched 200+ innings, was an All-Star and garnered Cy Young votes after he missed his age 33 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Despite taking the 2000 season off (not injury related), Brett Saberhagen went on to log 335 more innings and a 3.90 ERA after his injury during his age 32 season. Floyd Bannister was the least successful in his return, pitching just 62 innings to a 5.37 ERA after spending a year with the Yakult Swallows in Japan when he was not picked up on the free agent market for the 1990 season after his injury.

Thus far in his career, Lester has remained as consistent as the numbers these pitchers have put up over their last four years have. He has pitched between 191 and 219 innings consistently every season since 2008, and with the outlier of his 2012 season in Boston in which is ERA spiked to 4.82, he has posted an ERA between 2.44 and 3.75 every season during that time. What’s more, Lester’s DRA has actually been significantly and consistently lower than his ERA in every season he’s pitched as a starter with the exception of 2008 and 2016, two seasons in which they were approximately just half a run higher than his ERA.

The concern with Lester’s health is a non-factor in the eyes of the Epstein and Co. “Virtually all pitchers have some wear and tear on their shoulders and elbows, and Jon’s imperfections were very manageable. He remains very consistent, as we hoped, throwing 200-plus quality innings yet again last season.” Epstein said back in May of 2016, when it became known that Lester had been pitching with a bone chip in his elbow since 2014. Lester has no intention of removing the chip anytime soon, either. “It’s kind of one of those deals [that] if it’s not bothering you, don’t mess with it,” Lester said, “You start getting cut on and doing rehab, and that’s when maybe they’re in there, taking that bone chip out, and it puts more stress on something else. You don’t know. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ type thing.”

“On the spectrum of elbow injuries, bone chips are what teams hope for when a pitcher complains of soreness.” Jeff Passan wrote in his highly praised book The Arm. He’s right. If a bone chip that hasn’t effected Lester in any sort of negative way is the most paramount concern among a pitcher with the success, consistency, and age of Lester — it needn’t be one to lose sleep over.

Lester will be making $27.5 million over the next two years of his contract, before he bumps his final guaranteed year down to $20 million and finds himself facing a team option of $25 million ($10 million buyout) in 2021. Perhaps we can pull the data on how age 37 pitchers of Lester’s caliber age if baseball leads us down that distant path. But for now, the Cubs $155 million dollar investment did what it was suppose to do: return a World Series trophy to the North Side for the first time in 108 years.

Down the road, as free agency costs potentially continue to skyrocket, baseball will likely see its first $300 million pitching contract eventually, and the expense of Lester will look more prudent each offseason that passes regardless of his production from here on out. But as the data shows, Lester looks like he’s bound to have above average success in his upcoming seasons.

For now, Epstein has accomplished the mission he set out to forge with Lester by his side. Now, the rest of Lester’s likely success is just icing on the cake.

Thank you to Ethan Spalding of the Baseball Prospectus stats team for the data used in this piece.

Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports

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1 comment on “Jon Lester: Projecting Baseball’s $155 Million Man”

The CHI Sports Fan (@TheCHISportsFan)

One of your best yet Cat.

I think the other important thing Lester did in addition to providing the veteran intangibles – is that it signaled to the league the Cubs were “in business” and willing to spend money to free agents. Without Lester you never got Lackey (at the price he signed for especially) nor likely Fowler or a discounted Heyward. And of course David Ross is just some old guy who used to play for Boston and Atlanta and he never helps any of your young players to mature on, and off the field. The Cubs might have been viewed by free agents and their management teams as ‘still trying’ to become a competitive team rather seeing serious veterans who had (sometimes) better offers elsewhere choose the North Side.

To me – anything Jon does above serving as a #4 or higher starter until is option year is gravy to me. As you said, we have the trophy, we have the aura and we have the swag of perpetual champions. That never happens IMHO without Lester coming here.

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