Spring Profiles: Jon Lester

by Sully on March 10, 2011

in Red Sox

Lester Preview

First, some perspective. Jon Lester is the best lefthanded pitcher to wear a Red Sox uniform in over 50 years. Hopefully he will play his whole career in Boston but should he leave for greener pastures after his current contract expires following the 2014 season, he will do so most likely as the fourth best pitcher by almost any measure behind three fellas named Roger Clemens, Cy Young and Pedro Martinez. According to Baseball Reference Play Index Wins Above Replacement, since 1920, through age 26, only Clemens has been better for the Red Sox. We’re talking a total superstar, and already a player of historic importance as far as the Red Sox are concerned.

Looking more narrowly at how he stacks up in today’s game, he’s on the very shortlist of top hurlers. For consistency’s sake, we can stick with B-Ref’s WAR. The list below shows how Lester stacks up since 2008, his first full season.

Rk Player WAR Age IP SO ERA+
1 Roy Halladay 20.2 31-33 735.2 633 157
2 CC Sabathia 16.8 27-29 720.2 645 139
3 Tim Lincecum 16.7 24-26 664.2 757 152
4 Cliff Lee 16.6 29-31 667.1 536 141
5 Felix Hernandez 16.3 22-24 689.0 624 155
6 Jon Lester 16.2 24-26 621.2 602 139
7 John Danks 16.1 23-25 608.1 470 125
8 Zack Greinke 15.6 24-26 651.2 606 133
9 Ubaldo Jimenez 15.3 24-26 638.1 584 135
10 Johan Santana 14.4 29-31 600.0 496 143
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/10/2011.


After Halladay, he’s right in the mix for best pitcher in baseball.

There’s not really any bad news here but let’s nitpick a bit, shall we? In 2010, Lester’s strikeouts were down a tick and his walks were up significantly. He also had the lowest balls in play average since 2007, which strikes me as especially lucky given how shaky Boston’s defense was last season. He also had a HR/FB% that was well below league average.

Taken together, one might interpret these data point as something of a red flag. And I’d say it’s conceivable that Lester may have taken a small step backwards last year. But when you dig a little deeper, it more likely is the result of a pitcher maturing. We’ve seen this with other pitchers like C. C. Sabathia: more contact, fewer strikeouts, the same great results. Lester tinkered with his repertoire in 2010, throwing fewer fastballs and curves, while adding in more cutters and change-ups, two pitches that tend to help induce ground balls and weak contact more generally. This helps explain the walk rate spike, too. If you throw more of the pitches you haven’t in the past, and fewer of the ones you’ve grown accustomed to, it stands to reason that your control could slip a little.

Not that it was drastic, but it seems strange for a top performing player to alter his approach like Lester did in 2010. But like the pre 2010-2011 Tiger Woods seemingly always tinkering with his golf swing with great success, Lester has the talent to undertake such a project without compromising his performance. And if it works out, if Lester can go even deeper into games while throwing fewer pitches, then it could very well make him even more valuable to the Red Sox. It will be an interesting phenomenon to watch in 2011.

Thanks both to B-Ref & Fangraphs

Photo Credit: Cleveland Leader

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jake March 10, 2011 at 8:53 am

Hey Sully: I’m still relatively new to advanced stats, and I could use some help. When calculating WAR for pitchers, what gives, say, Cliff Lee, a higher WAR than, say, King Felix, who has more innings pitched at a better ERA+?

I did head over to B-Ref to try to figure this out for myself, but I don’t quite have the chops for it. I’m sure park adjustment is involved, but I can’t imagine park effects alone would do it…

Reply

Sully March 10, 2011 at 9:07 am

Hey Jake – I think this Dave Cameron article at Fangraphs goes a long way in explaining the WAR as B-Ref looks at it versus Fangraphs. Cliff Lee is a great case study.

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/why-our-pitcher-war-uses-fip/

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Roger March 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

B-Ref’s war attempts to adjust for park and defense. Felix plays in front of one of the best defenses in the game and in an extremely pitcher-friendly park.

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Jake March 10, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Thanks, Sully and Roger. That helps.

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Matt March 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Without really looking into the numbers, Lester’s decreased HR/FB rate in ’10 as compared to ’09 could be at least partially the result of an increase in GB% (from 47.7% to 53.6%).

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BigNachos March 10, 2011 at 8:18 pm

I don’t think there’s any correlation between HR/FB and GB%–see, for example, Tim Hudson’s 13.1% HR/FB rate compared to his 64.1% GB rate or Livan Hernandez’s 5.8% to 39.3%.

I usually think of HR/FB as a luck indicator, much like BABIP.

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Matt March 11, 2011 at 1:48 am

I’m sure you’re right. What I should have written was the decreased FB% could be a small part of his decrease in homers over all.

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Roger March 10, 2011 at 10:18 pm

I think that it’s actually the opposite, that the higher your FB%, the lower your HR/FB% is. Though this effect is mainly because FB% and IFFB% (In Field FB%) are very highly correlated, and infield fly balls obviously can’t become home runs. I think that if you take out the effect of infield fly balls, the effect is negligible.

HR/FB is generally a luck- (and park-) driven stat, though there is some evidence for it as a skill (see Cain, Matt).

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