Setting the Record Straight on Jon Lester’s Value, Once and For All

Jon Lester has a target on his back, though that’s to be expected when you sign the highest contract in club history (at the time). There has developed around Lester this idea that his 2015 season was a sub-par year. Some point to the fact that he was paid the most of any starting pitcher last year while he was not even the best starter on his own team. Setting aside an awareness of the creative accounting that has been a hallmark of the free agent contracts given out by this Cubs regime, there is a widespread belief that Lester is either overpaid or that he failed to live up to expectations in 2015.

Lester’s contract was not some aberration or some outrageous overpay at the time. The Cubs were not even the highest bidder for his services in that offseason, but it is true that if the option is picked up the total value will surpass any free agent deal signed by a pitcher at the time. That still does not make Lester an overpay according to the market. Consider that there have already been three pitchers signed for more in the nearly year and a half since the Lester deal.

Much of the perception of that deal came from a lull in the market leading up to it. The top pitcher signing prior to the 2012 season was C.J. Wilson. The year after was a class featuring Zach Greinke, who netted $24.5 million average annual value (AAV). Greinke clearly is a better pitcher but the fact that Lester grabbed a better deal is not surprising. Not only were there a couple years of inflation, but  Greinke’s deal had an opt out that allowed him to re-enter the free agent market to become one of those three larger deals above. In 2014, it was Masahiro Tanaka and Matt Garza as the top pitching options. So this chart should not be surprising.

Starting Pitcher AAV
Jon Lester was paid ace money from in 2009-2011. The revenue in the game continued to sky rocket in the interim between those deals and the 2015 offseason. Also, the CBA has limited spending in places outside of free agency, which has put upward pressure on prices in the market. $155 million total guaranteed or a $25 million AAV is not what the absolute best pitchers in baseball are being paid on the open market in 2015.

He was not paid as if he was Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer, but Lester was very good in 2015. The narrative around the massive contract started early due to ESPN shining a light on something already widely known in the game during his first outing at Wrigley. He then had a poor outing that night and was rough for most of the month of April, during which he posted a 6.23 ERA. Put it all together and the story of the Cubs’ overpaid ace was set in some minds.

Then the rest of 2015 happened and Jon Lester put up a 2.99 ERA once the calendar flipped to May, eventually ending the season with a 3.34 ERA, good for 21st among qualified starters. But he was only worth 3.1 wins according to Baseball Reference, which put him in a tie for 35th place with Tyson Ross and Colin McHugh. Noted ace JA Happ was just 0.1 wins away from tying Lester as well. Looking at it that way is certainly a disappointment, but this is not the only way to view Jon Lester’s 2015.

He was great if you look at fielding independent pitching (FIP), in which Lester jumps up to 13th overall. Eleven of the other 12 pitchers in front of him by this measure have never reached free agency. There were two pitchers on this list that make more than Jon Lester as well. By this statistical measure alone, Lester more than earned his 2015 salary.

But things really get interesting when we look at WAR as measured by FanGraphs, which again shows Lester (5.0) as the 13th best pitcher in baseball. That is only part of the story, though, as those five wins represent the 8th best season a Cubs pitcher since 1975.

DRA and the WARP derived from it like Jon Lester a lot less. He ranked 32nd in baseball in DRA among pitchers with 150 IP in 2015 and was also 30th in WARP. Mike Leake ranked higher than Lester in both areas last season, and Leake isn’t necessarily a name we expect to see discussed as a comparable pitcher. Matthew Trueblood wrote about the difference in the WAR totals among starters in August, with the stark difference between DRA and FIP coming from Lester’s defensive prowess.

The issues with throwing to bases are not going to derail Jon Lester’s career. He has performed fine, but FIP completely ignores those issues. The truth is that they do have a negative effect on Lester’s performance and his ERA and DRA reflect those problems. Lester is still among the best starting pitchers in baseball when you look at all the statistics available to us, but exactly how good depends on which statistics you choose to focus on.

Descriptive metrics like ERA and DRA have him hovering at about the 30th best starting pitcher baseball. A (more) predictive statistic like FIP will tell you that the lefty performed like an ace over the course of a season that was only overshadowed by the historic greatness of Jake Arrieta.

So why are we still having these conversations about Jon Lester after what was, at the very least, a very good season? The contract numbers appeared eye-popping since the Cubs had yet to spend big as the free agent market continued to grow. Lester was coming off a career-best season in the more-difficult-to-pitch-in AL, and then he started very slowly — which has pretty much been his MO over the course of his career, as evidenced by an April ERA that is the highest of any month in his splits — for the Cubs. Add in the dead arm in spring training and the target was placed firmly on his back.

He has since answered any questions raised, but still some hang on to the notion that Lester is supposed to be more than a very good starter for the money he was paid.

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