Mr. Lester Goes to Washington

The last time he was a free agent — and one of the top free agents in the game, at that — Jon Lester struck gold, and so did the Cubs, who won their first championship in 108 years in the second season of his six-year, $155 million deal. This time around, the stakes are much lower. On the heels of a disappointing 2020 campaign, Lester didn’t even crack our Top 50 Free Agents list, but per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, he’s leaving Chicago to take a one-year, $5 million contract with the Nationals.

The exact terms and structure of the deal have not been officially announced, though Passan also reported that it includes a mutual option for 2022 for an as-yet-undisclosed amount. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that the deal actually pays Lester just $2 million in salary for 2021, with $3 million in deferred money due in 2023. The Cubs have already paid Lester a $10 million buyout on his $25 million mutual option for 2021.

Lester, who turned 37 on January 7, is a nine-time postseason participant, six-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion with 193 career wins and 2,397 career strikeouts, but he’s coming off the worst of his 15 major league seasons. Though he went to the post 12 times and ran his streak to making an essentially full complement of starts for the 13th straight year, he was cuffed for a 5.16 ERA (116 ERA-) and a 5.15 FIP while striking out just 15.8% of the hitters he faced, the third-lowest mark of any qualifying pitcher. His drop of nearly six percentage points relative to 2019 was the fourth-largest among the 22 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title in both seasons:

Largest Decline in Strikeout Percentage, 2019-20
Pitcher Team IP K% 2020 K% 2019 Change
Patrick Corbin Nationals 65.2 20.3% 28.5% -8.2%
Matthew Boyd Tigers 60.1 22.1% 30.2% -8.1%
Gerrit Cole Astros/Yankees 73.0 32.6% 39.9% -7.3%
Jon Lester Cubs 61.0 15.8% 21.6% -5.8%
Zack Wheeler Mets/Phillies 71.0 18.4% 23.6% -5.2%
Max Scherzer Nationals 67.1 31.2% 35.1% -3.9%
Germán Márquez Rockies 81.2 21.2% 24.3% -3.1%
Lance Lynn Rangers 84.0 25.9% 28.1% -2.2%
Martín Pérez Twins/Red Sox 62.0 17.6% 18.3% -0.7%
Kyle Hendricks Cubs 81.1 20.3% 20.5% -0.2%
Minimum 162 innings in 2019 and 60 innings in 2020.

In a season that included an abbreviated summer camp and numerous other structural curveballs, it’s fair to wonder how much of those pitchers’ eroding strikeout rates owed something to changed approaches — pitching more to contact for reasons of self-preservation, and with lesser velocity — and how much were due to declining stuff. Note the inclusions of Cole, last winter’s top free agent, as well as two of Lester’s new teammates, Corbin and Scherzer. All three pitched through the end of October in 2019 on either side of the World Series won by the Nationals; Cole and Scherzer both ranked among the majors’ top 10 in strikeout rate last year even with their drops. With the latter and Corbin both toiling for a team that quickly fizzled in 2020 en route to a 24-36, fifth-place finish in the NL East, it’s understandable if their approaches changed.

That caveat aside, there’s ample evidence that points to a decline in Lester’s stuff, not just from 2019 to ’20 but in the years since the Cubs won it all in ’16, which shouldn’t be too surprising given his age:

The Decline of Jon Lester
Years FB Velo Barrel% SwStr% HR/9 K% BB% K-BB% ERA- FIP-
2015-2016 92.0 3.9% 10.4% 0.82 24.9% 6.1% 18.8% 72 79
2017-2019 90.9 6.2% 9.5% 1.28 21.6% 7.7% 13.9% 95 100
2020 89.2 12.3% 7.2% 1.62 15.8% 6.4% 9.4% 116 115

Admittedly, I’ve broken up those periods into unequally-sized chunks, but they do correspond to the observed trend in Lester’s declining peripherals as measured by FIP-, which has risen in four out of the five intervals (2018 to ’19 was the exception); his first two years were All-Star caliber, the next three basically average save for a FIP-defying fluke in the middle season, and last year not much better than replacement level. I could have swapped in other Statcast numbers besides barrel rate; his hard-hit rate jumped from 28.7% to 33.1% to 38.9%, for example, while is xwOBA climbed from .283 to .334 to .348.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that Lester was worth an average of 2.5 WAR from 2017-19, including 2.8 in the final year of that, and all around the majors, the question of how much meaning to take from the small samples of 2020 looms large. For the price tag — which is only slightly more than the Red Sox are guaranteeing Pérez, who pitched a bit better than Lester in 2020 (97 ERA-, 111 FIP-) and is younger (30) but has a much more limited track record of success — this isn’t a terrible gamble even if he is only projected to produce 1.0 WAR with a 5.00 ERA and 4.99 FIP in 125 innings. As with all projections, that’s the average of a wider distribution of outcomes, and there’s a significant chance that he’s able to provide something closer to league average work again.

Much of it will depend upon Lester’s teammates, and given a pitcher with a waning ability to miss bats, it’s worth noting that the Nationals’ infield defense is full of potholes, with two of its four projected starters well below average over the past two seasons according to multiple metrics:

Nationals’ Infield Defense, 2019-20
Player Pos Innings UZR/150 DRS/150 OAA/150
Josh Bell 1B 1446.1 -10.4 -8.4 -4.7
Starlin Castro 2B 1147.0 -1.9 4.7 9.4
Trea Turner SS 1545.0 -9.9 -7.0 2.6
Carter Kieboom 3B 255.2* 0.8 26.4 0.0
Luis Garcia 2B 285.1* -16.3 -18.9 -14.2
OAA= Statcast Outs Above Average, measured in plays, not runs. All per-150 metrics are for 2019 and ’20 at the specific position except * (’20 only).

Bell is a DH-caliber first baseman, and Turner significantly subpar via UZR and DRS, though his OAA does offer some contrasting evidence. Castro, who was limited to 16 games by a right wrist fracture suffered while diving for a ball, has been solid enough when available, though Garcia, his understudy, was dreadful in limited exposure last year while making the jump from Double-A; to be fair his grades as a prospect weren’t that bad (45 present value/50 future value for fielding, 55/55 for throwing). Kieboom fared well in his first taste of the majors, though his scouting grades for fielding (40/45), based on his limited range, rate as a concern; he’s 60/60 in terms of his throwing. Here it’s worth noting that the outfield defense, with new addition Kyle Schwarber and Juan Soto at the corners and Victor Robles in center, may not be much to write home about, either.

Ideally, the Nationals won’t need Lester to do more than serve as a fourth starter behind Scherzer, Corbin, and Stephen Strasburg, who was limited to two starts totaling five innings in 2020 due to carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand, a condition for which he underwent season-ending surgery in late August. Barring further additions, the mix for the fifth spot includes righties Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, and Austin Voth, and lefty Ben Braymer. Ross opted out of last season after totaling just 1.2 WAR from 2017-19. Fedde has yet to come close to living up to the promise that made him a first-round pick in ’14, netting 0.0 WAR in 194 career innings. Voth was dreadful in 2020 after showing promise the year before, while Braymer has just 7.1 big league innings under his belt as well as only 139 total innings at Double-A and Triple-A.

Thanks to the strength of the big three, the unit as a whole currently ranks fifth in the majors in projected WAR (15.2) via our Depth Charts, but their NL East rivals aren’t standing still. The Mets have added Carlos Carrasco and Joey Lucchesi and will get Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard back after both missed 2020 (the former opted out, the latter underwent Tommy John surgery); they rank third at 17.2 projected WAR, while the Braves, who have added Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly and can look to the return of Mike Soroka from a torn right Achilles tendon as well as a full-season contribution from Ian Anderson, rank ninth at 13.4.

Beyond that, one can’t help but notice an additional facet of Mr. Lester going to Washington: he’ll join several ex-Cubs. Nationals manager Dave Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey both spent time on Joe Maddon’s coaching staff during Lester’s time in Chicago, with the former serving as bench coach from 2015-17, and the latter as pitching coach in ’18. Castro and Lester were teammates in 2015, and Schwarber, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Nationals earlier this month and will serve as their regular left fielder, was Lester’s teammate since arriving in the majors in ’15 as well. Welington Castillo was briefly Lester’s teammate in 2015, though he never caught him in a regular season game.

Such is the state of the Cubs’ second tank job during the Ricketts family’s ownership tenure that the team, which shed $55 million worth of salaries via free agency as well as offloading $59 million worth of future commitments to Yu Darvish in trade, wouldn’t even come close to matching the modest offer that Lester received from the Nationals. Via NBC Sports’ Gordon Wittenmyer, “The mandate from ownership and the business side wouldn’t allow [president of baseball operations Jed] Hoyer to make an offer. And even when the Nationals offer came in, and Lester gave the Cubs a chance to counter, the Cubs were ‘not close’ to the Nats — perhaps as low as $2 million.”

Oof. Mind you, the Cubs aren’t obligated to pay any player based upon past glories, but they’re coming off a 34-26, first-place season and figured to have the inside track to repeat atop a weakened NL Central. As Craig Edwards characterized their teardown in the aforementioned Darvish analysis, they were “a win-now team not trying to win now.” The team clearly viewed Lester as a transformative player beyond his on-field performance, and he reportedly wanted to stay, even after they started shedding significant pieces. It’s not as though paying him $5 million to round out a rotation that now projects as the majors’ worst would significantly push them towards the competitive balance tax threshold.

I’ll leave it to Cubs fans to get out their pitchforks. That team may not miss the 2021 version of Lester, and in fact he may not have much left in the tank. The cost of finding out is relatively minimal, though, and it’s a whole lot easier to buy into the vision of a team that flopped in 2020 but sees its glass and that of its new pitcher as half full, rather than one that fared well and not only views every glass as half empty but is happy to knock them off the table and hope nobody notices the ensuing shards.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago

My Nats have been a bad defensive team for a while and it’s now getting crazy bad. I just don’t see an elderly pitcher with declining strikeouts pitching well for this team! I really hope they know things I don’t. We were close to last in 2020 defensively and went out and got two defensive liabilities in Schwarber and Bell? Then get an elderly control pitcher in Lester? I’m concerned we might not beat the Marlins like in 2020. Not to mention the Braves, Mets, and Phils.