The Complicated Matter of Jon Lester’s Status

The Red Sox, like the Rays, aren’t quite sure whether it’s time to sell. Both of them are tied for fourth, or last, in the AL East, at 7.5 games back. But then they’ve won a combined nine games in a row, and our projections have them as the best teams in the division. Still, their playoff odds are low enough that this might be too little, too late. If the Red Sox elect to sell, they have a handful of veteran role players that could find temporary homes with contenders. But no matter what the Sox choose, it appears they’ll be keeping Jon Lester. The free-agent-to-be doesn’t seem to be available on the market.

The idea is that the Sox would like to extend him. Lester has said before that he’d be willing to take something of a hometown discount, even if that urge is diminished with every passing day. Obviously, the two sides have yet to reach an agreement, despite a midseason re-opening of talks, and obviously, the Red Sox’s reported offer around spring training was too low, but there’s still a pretty good chance of a long-term marriage, here. Both Lester and the Sox ultimately want the same thing. They just need to agree on what Jon Lester is.

The coming free-agent class features three starting-pitcher names bigger than the rest. James Shields has struggled a little bit, but as is he’s still in line for a significant payday. Max Scherzer has been the same as he was last year, with just a little bit less success with the things a pitcher can’t really control too much. And Jon Lester has stepped things up, achieving the statistical level of ace-hood that he previously achieved between 2009 – 2010. His strikeouts have gone north, his walks have gone south, and his ERA is nearly half what it was in 2012.

Lester, without question, has raised his stock since the start of the season. And he finished 2013 strong, as well, such that, over the past calendar year, Lester’s been one of the very best arms in the game. He’s been at least as good as Scherzer, and most probably better.

Over that past year, 139 different starters have thrown at least 100 innings. Lester’s ranks in three stats:

  • ERA-: 4th (tied)
  • FIP-: 4th (tied)
  • xFIP-: 23rd (tied)

Scherzer’s ranks in the same stats:

  • ERA-: 23rd (tied)
  • FIP-: 12th (tied)
  • xFIP-: 26th (tied)

Over a year, by FIP, Lester’s been worse only than Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, and Felix Hernandez, which is to say he’s been spectacular. There’s a reason people are talking about Cole Hamels money, and not just because Hamels was the last guy to sign a long-term extension in these kinds of circumstances. Hamels signed a six-year extension in July 2012, and over the previous three seasons, he started 101 games, posting an 87 FIP-. Over the past three seasons, Lester has started 100 games, posting an 85 FIP-. And right now his numbers are better than ever.

Hamels signed for six years and $144 million. Over the two years since, there’s been some more inflation within the industry. On the other hand, Lester has already mentioned the hometown-discount thing, and also, Hamels was signed for ages 29 – 34. Lester, next year, will be 31, so that’s another factor. Lester might not be looking for Hamels money, but one could see a similar rate over four or five years.

There’s just this thing, about Jon Lester’s numbers. It’s also a thing about Jon Lester’s catchers, and it’s something I wrote about a month and a half ago.

There’s no mistaking that Lester has significantly improved his peripherals. There’s no clear significant change in his repertoire. His velocities have stayed consistent. His zone rate is in the same range as ever. His contact rate has barely gone down. His rate of swings at balls has barely moved. His rate of swings at strikes has barely moved. Look elsewhere on the Jon Lester player page, and you don’t think you’re looking at a guy who’s dropped his FIP- and xFIP- by about 20 points. And something we’ve come to understand about fielding-independent pitching statistics is they’re not totally fielding-independent.

Baseball Prospectus tracks pitch-framing data broken down by battery. They show runs added or subtracted by call, and they show runs added or subtracted by count, the latter leaning upon the idea that extra strikes are differently valuable in different situations. For example, according to the former calculation, a first-pitch strike counts the same as, say, a 2-and-2 strike. According to the latter calculation, the 2-and-2 strike is more valuable, because it’s a strikeout. Anyhow, what you see is Jon Lester second on the list, with David Ross, in framing runs by count. By their calculations, Ross’ framing for Lester this year has been worth more than ten runs already.

Only two batteries are in the double digits; only three are north of +5.8 runs. Lester and Ross have worked very well together, and now let’s look at a table of Lester data stretching back to 2008. These are his combined framing runs, by count, by year.

Year Framing Runs Starts
2008 -1.8 33
2009 -4.2 32
2010 6.1 32
2011 5.2 31
2012 4.6 33
2013 2.1 33
2014 10.4 20

Already, Lester’s achieved a career-best, and he’s on pace for about +16 or so. The previous four years, Lester finished above average, but never north of +6 runs. Depending on how much stock you put in the numbers, for Lester this year, framing could come out as having been worth more than a full win or two.

And that doesn’t show up outside of one’s FIP. That’s a part of the FIP, as framing influences strikeouts and walks. A big part of good framing is good command, because it’s hard to frame a pitch thrown somewhere other than where it’s expected, but the bigger message is this: presuming the Red Sox know what’s what with regard to contemporary player analysis, the team might have a better understanding of Ross’ value than Lester. Lester’s side might talk about the wins and the strikeouts and the ERA, but the Red Sox probably get that that isn’t all about Jon Lester himself.

Ditch the specific numbers for a moment. Just go with the concept. Lester wants to get paid, and he knows about his own numbers. The Red Sox would like to pay him, but they could also figure a part of his great numbers is a function of the guy who’s been catching most of the pitches. So then you could have a gap in the player evaluation, and it’s hard enough to reach an agreement when a team and a player agree on what the player is. Everyone agrees that Jon Lester is one of the better starters in baseball, but the Sox might be unwilling to pay Lester for something in part accomplished by somebody else.

By no means is my point that Jon Lester isn’t good. By no means is my point that Jon Lester owes a lot of his statistical success to David Ross. This is a smaller factor, but it’s a bigger factor than it usually is, and it could be a big part of the reason why the sides remain separated. By the numbers, it seems like Ross has been a significant help for Lester on the year, but David Ross isn’t a part of the Jon Lester free-agent package. The Red Sox need to evaluate Lester for Lester, and that isn’t as easy to do as it might seem.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Shirtless Johan Santa
9 years ago

How can you even think about Jon Lester at a time like this?

NotGraphs is going to be contracted…put out of existence!!!

9 years ago

To be fair, I haven’t ever seen indication that Jeff has ever thought about Notgraphs. Except maybe for the posts tagged Cistulli. F__k that guy. Because seriously, who could ignore such truths being extolled about one’s co-worker?