Projections Be Damned, Don’t Sleep on Jon Lester

Jon Lester’s number 34 could hang high above the Wrigley foul pole one day, but computers believe his success with the Cubs is coming to a screeching halt. New projections suggest his 2020 value will be replacement level at best, and perhaps even worse than that.

Lester’s most favorable projection among the three heavily used models is ZiPS, which predicts him to be worth 1.8 WAR with a roughly league-average 4.38 ERA and 4.54 FIP, respectively. STEAMER is not far behind, putting him at the same 1.8 WAR but with a less favorable 4.73 ERA and 4.65 FIP.

PECOTA, though, absolutely hates Lester and believes the 36-year-old will put up a 4.67 ERA and 4.59 FIP with a disastrous 5.83 Deserved Runs Average (DRA). Basically, PECOTA believes the Cubs defense will have to bail the lefty out just to keep him afloat.

Projection ERA FIP WAR
ZiPS 4.38 4.54 1.8
PECOTA 4.67 4.59 0.04
STEAMER 4.73 4.65 1.8
Average 4.59 4.59 1.21

But don’t sleep on BDJ, because he’s already shown the capacity to adapt to age-related diminution of skills. For instance, Lester’s velocity dropped nearly 1 mph last year, but he made up for the dip by throwing more cutters and sinkers.

And since he was throwing more cutters in 2019, his groundball rate increased by 15% from the previous year. Indeed, the 43% grounder rate Lester has generated with the cutter over the last two years is substantially better than the 28% rate he’s gotten with the four-seam.

Throwing more cutters wasn’t the only change Lester made, either. As you can see in the graph below, he has increased his changeup frequency nearly 2.5-fold since joining the Cubs in 2015.

These two adjustments corresponded to a 4.46 ERA and 4.26 FIP last season, which was worth almost 3 fWAR. Remember, too, that the MLB league ERA and FIP averages were ~4.5 last season. So even as a 35-year-old with more gray hairs than ticks on his fastball, Lester was still putting up above-average numbers. And the Cubs think he can do so again.

“He’s in a good place and I’m proud of him and I’m happy where he’s at,” David Ross said Thursday. “[I’m] excited, you know, I really still think he’s a special top-of-the-rotation pitcher, [and I’ll] tell him the stuff that I really believe and where he can improve and how I want him to kind of affect the young guys and so much that he can bring.”

Now, I get that Ross is a little bit of a homer and that assuming Lester can carry over his exact 2019 gameplan into 2020 would be faulty logic. But the reason I bring up his cutter and changeup adjustments is that they represent a capacity to successfully adapt to age-related decline.

In addition to guile and grit, everyone’s favorite intangible, Lester has more resources in 2020 than he did in 2019 due to the completely revamped pitching development infrastructure. How exactly will Tommy Hottovy and Craig Breslow maintain the lefty’s value? I don’t know. But I’m confident that they have the ability to figure it out as a group.

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