Jon Lester and Max Scherzer Enter Year One

Every offseason, the somewhat distant future often comes to the forefront of conversations. Time and words are spent wondering what will happen in five, six or seven years. Space in our brains is used to speculate if these long term contracts will work out for their teams, or if Bobby Bonilla’s steady stream of income will outlast Max Scherzer’s (it will). Keeping an eye on the long term future is generally a very good idea, but games that count are less than two weeks away causing years six and seven to fade from consciousness. Before the offseason began, just three free agent pitchers had signed contracts over $100 million with new teams in the last decade. Two more names were added to that list this past winter, and now year one for Max Scherzer and Jon Lester is upon us.

The pitchers join teams at different stages of development. Scherzer comes to the Nationals as a potential piece in an immediate World Series contender. The rotation was strong before Scherzer’s arrival with Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister forming one of the league’s best rotations. The Chicago Cubs’ signing of Lester is more of a signal of things to come in Chicago. The Cubs are could-be contenders in 2015, but need a few breaks to jump into the ranks of the elite. Lester heads to Chicago expected to anchor a staff that will need his best to contend.

There are already a few concerns coming out of spring for Lester. He is missing a start due to a dead arm as those around him are ramping up their workloads to prepare for the beginning of the season. Sometimes the dead arm phase is nothing more than a normal phase pitchers go through to get ready for the season. Cole Hamels and Jordan Zimmerman have had dead arms in recent springs and gone on to excellent seasons. In addition to Lester this spring, Joe Saunders, Mike Fiers, Tim Stauffer, and basically the entire Boston Red Sox rotation have reported symptoms of a dead arm.

The dead arm phase is not always just a phase. On March 10th, Josh Edgin of the New York Mets was apparently going through a dead arm phase. A week later, Tommy John surgery was scheduled for ligament damage. The Cubs have tried to hit the snooze button by downplaying the missed start. Lessening innings in spring has worked before for Lester, as this is the second straight spring that Lester will have a lighter spring load.

After a 2013 season that included a World Series run and more than 250 innings pitched, the Red Sox limited Lester to just three spring starts and 12 1/3 innings pitched. He responded with a very strong April, striking out 43 and walking just eight in 40 2/3 innings on the way to a great season split between Boston and Oakland. As for Scherzer, no news is presumably good news for any pitcher in Spring Training.

In recent seasons, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander have all signed massive contract extensions with their teams, but the mega-deal for a free agent pitcher is still rare. Before this offseason, there had been just one free agent contract for a free agent pitcher in the last five offseasons exceeding $100 million. Zack Greinke’s six-year, $147 million contract two years ago was the only recent nine-figure free agent pitching contract in the past five seasons, and only the third pitcher to go to a new team in the last decade following Barry Zito’s deal in 2006 and CC Sabathia’s first contract with the Yankees (Cliff Lee did have a year’s sabbatical from Philadelphia, but returned to a team he was familiar with).

Even lowering the threshold to $70 million only adds John Lackey, A.J. Burnett, and C.J. Wilson. Big-money starting pitchers do not often change teams in free agency. Two big deals for Scherzer and Lester along with James Shields’ contract with the San Diego Padres made this offseason a big one. Next season could be even bigger with David Price, Jordan Zimmerman, Johnny Cueto, and Zack Greinke all potential free agents.

That Zito did not live up to the length and amount of his contract was never surprising. He was coming off three straight sub-three WAR seasons, including 2.1 in the season before free agency. He did put up six straight 200+ innings prior to free agency, and fell short of that mark in every single year thereafter, but the 1.4 WAR and nearly identical FIP from his last year with the Oakland Athletics and his first year with the San Francisco Giants indicates Zito’s performance was pretty close to what should have been his expectations.

Both Sabathia and Greinke had solid first seasons after signing their free agent deals.

Zack Greinke ERA FIP WAR
2012 3.48 3.10 5
2013 2.63 3.23 3.3
Difference -0.85 0.13 -1.7


2008 2.70 2.91 7.4
2009 3.37 3.39 5.9
Difference 0.67 0.46 -1.5

Neither player quite lived up to their prior year performance, but both players started from a very high level. The same will be true of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester after their excellent 2014 seasons.

Max Scherzer 220.1 3.15 2.85 5.1
Jon Lester 219.2 2.46 2.80 5.6

Their FanGraphs Depth Chart projections come in very high for 2015.

Max Scherzer 211 2.8 2.41 4.9
Jon Lester 214 3.24 3.32 4.1

Those are the fifth and sixth highest projected WARs for a starting pitcher this season. Recent history also builds support for a strong year from Scherzer and Lester. Scherzer and Lester pitched the 2014 season at Age-29 and Age-30, respectively. Expanding their age slightly, there were 15 seasons from 2009-2013 from pitchers between 28 and 31 years old with a WAR exceeding five. In the following season, only Adam Wainwright’s missed 2011 had a season below average. In ten of the 15 seasons, the pitchers had a WAR of more than 4 with Dan Haren in 2012 the only pitcher to go the whole season and have a WAR less than three.

There are certainly long term concerns about any lengthy deal for a pitcher, but present day expectations currently trump those worries. For Scherzer, he is expected to join a staff aiming for a long playoff run. Lester already has 2015 concerns heading into the season, although all will be forgotten with a few good starts in April. Based on their own track records as well as those who have gone before them, this season looks very good for the high-priced pair.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Mike Hampton’s was a free agent contract, right?