You’re going to be talking to your brother-in-law about Jon Lester on Thursday. I might be wrong about that, but if you’re reading this, odds are you’re a baseball fan, and if you’re a baseball fan, odds are you’re going to be talking about Jon Lester with your brother-in-law on Thursday. Jon Lester is the belle of the free-agent ball right now. There are a bunch of unsubstantiated numbers, offers teams may or may not have made, floating out there. It feels like Lester is, almost inevitably, the next domino that will need to fall before the rest of the Hot Stove shuffling can go on unabated. As such, he’s a focal point.

I’m not quite in lockstep, it seems, with the consensus opinion of Lester’s market value. I threw out Zack Greinke, who hit the market two years ago, as a comparable case, a peg around which to approximate what Lester is worth. Like Lester, Greinke was traded a few months before hitting free agency, and therefore, did not cost a draft pick. He signed with the Dodgers for six years and $147 million, and got the right to opt out after three of those seasons. It’s been two years, and the market is slightly inflated, even over that short term, but on the other hand, Greinke was a better pitcher than Lester in the years leading up to his free-agent foray:

chart (6)

and Greinke hit the market younger, without a poor season anywhere in his immediate rearview. Lester has one of those not so deep into his past, in 2012.

On the other hand, Lester had a better walk year in 2014 than Greinke had in 2012.

Jon Lester v. Zack Greinke

Name, Season Innings K% BB% FIP WAR
Zack Greinke, 2012 212.1 23.0 6.2 3.10 4.8
Jon Lester, 2014 219.2 24.9 5.4 2.80 6.1

Now, it’s a lot easier to be a left-handed starter in 2014 than it was to be a right-handed starter in 2012. Still, Lester has recency bias on his side, as far as that goes.

If a team is going to pay for Lester’s sensational 2014 performance, though, and put him in or even above Greinke’s tax bracket, they’re going to need a reason to believe that the huge step forward Lester took this season was real. Happily for Lester, there’s just such a beacon out there, telling suitors that his improvement might be real and permanent.

Check out Lester’s stats against right-handed batters since 2012:

Jon Lester v. RHB, 2012-14

Name, Season Batters Faced K% BB% BABIP wOBA
2012 645 18.1 8.4 .316 .339
2013 705 17.9 7.9 .302 .317
2014 678 24.8 5.5 .288 .275

As I’ve documented recently, 2014 was the best season in baseball history to be a right-handed batter, relative to a lefty. The deck was stacked against Lester, when it came to solving his quandary with opposite-handed batters. To do it, he turned to the same tactic that worked for Francisco Liriano in 2013: not adding to his repertoire, but subtracting from it. Liriano had switched from blending his four-seam fastball and sinker to using the sinker as nearly his only heater. Lester cut out his changeup, using his cutter more to replace it.

As you can see below, the elimination of that pitch allowed Lester to pound the zone more against righties, get in on them more often and work ahead in the count more.

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There’s definitely a real change here, and Lester might have tapped into something that will allow him to dominate right-handers into the future. Then again, some of these changes stick, and some don’t. It’s encouraging, at least, that this grew out of a simplification of his approach, and not some new skill to which he’ll need to cling.

There are a few things to suggest that Lester’s 2014 is more smoke than fire, though, and they shouldn’t be ignored. For one thing, his ground-ball rate continues a precipitous drop. He was once one of the better grounder-inducing left-handed arms in baseball, but he now leans toward fly balls. As long as that is a product of an aggressive approach and as long as Lester continues to put people away with swing-and-miss stuff, it’s not a death knell, but fly balls are dangerous and Lester is flirting with that danger more and more often.

For another thing, Lester’s fastball velocity has dipped fairly significantly over the past two years. Lester will be 31 in January. That could be as much a part of his choice to scrap the changeup as any; he simply could not maintain the separation between the fastball and change, velocity-wise, that made it an effective offering for him in the past. If he’s making this sort of change out of necessity, not proactivity, well, it’s still great that it worked so well, but it casts the metamorphosis in a different light.

In a vacuum, I think Jon Lester is probably worth Zack Greinke money. I wouldn’t go higher, and the team I run likely wouldn’t be the one to take that leap, but given what we’ve established above, it’s not a preposterous notion on its own merit.

Scroll back up a few paragraphs, though, and click on the link to that Francisco Liriano article I wrote a short time ago. Now, consider the other pitchers sharing the market with Lester. There’s Max Scherzer, who is a clear tier above Lester in terms of pure stuff and three-year track record, and who (arguably) had the better 2014, to boot. There’s James Shields, whose value will be a bit lower because of his age, but who is something not far short of Lester in terms of skill set, and who eats innings even more reliably. There are Liriano, Ervin Santana, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy and Justin Masterson, all of whom will cost a small fraction of what Lester might but deliver comparable (not equal, but comparable) value.

In this market, I can’t give Jon Lester a megadeal. In this market, with so many decent options out there and Lester’s walk year simply weighing too heavily on the negotiating table, Lester is just not the best option at the salary level being discussed.

We have hard (okay, firm; no news is truly hard until it’s reported as fact with attribution) reports of offers more in the $120-140 million range. That’s where the bidding should stay, and as his adjustments this season proved, Lester should be able to thrive enough to earn such a contract. He’s a good value at that level. If Greinke money, or even CC Sabathia money, is where the market ends up, then some team is going to regret their investment in Lester a few years from now.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1.  The Old Jon Lester Is New Again | Banished To The Pen
  2.  Jon Lester Sends the Cubs Soaring | Banished To The Pen
  3.  The Resurgence of Jon Lester: How a Small Mechanical Change Brought Back a Pitch that Earned Millions | Community – FanGraphs Baseball

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