Jon Lester: When Leasing Makes More Sense Than Buying
With Thursday’s MLB trade deadline quickly approaching, contending teams have been afforded as much time as possible to determine if a “rental” player is worth acquiring. Since both pitchers are performing admirably this season, Jon Lester and David Price’s, ahem, prices are largely distinguished by the extra year of team control for Price. Lester, on the other hand, is a free agent at year’s end and is analyzed by (1) how much he costs to acquire and (2) how much better he makes the team for the rest of the year. A third consideration, his financial cost, is mostly negligible for 2014 if the acquiring team makes the playoffs. Though both are squarely on the hot stove, Lester is a different acquisition than Price.
For keeper fantasy baseball leagues, discussions like Mike Newman’s Rent or Extend article from Tuesday don’t usually impact owners on a micro scale since so few leagues employ salaries based on real-life contracts. Without a doubt, AL or NL only leagues know all too well the importance of impending free agency, but where and for how much a player signs aren’t otherwise deal breakers. However, a front office point of view (rent Lester, extend Price) should always apply to fantasy baseball owners.
While many MLB teams are trying to “buy” Jon Lester, fantasy owners should consider the opposite. In keeper leagues, the idea of renting players is rare, since few leagues would find Lester in a position of going from a kept player to a non-kept player. It simply comes down to whether or not fantasy owners believe Lester’s projections in 2015 and beyond.
Over the past few seasons, Jon Lester changed the way he pitches. It makes sense for the lefty to continue his current pitch usage, allowing for his greatest success since 2010. The biggest differences from this season and last are the cutter (thrown 29.6% of the time, up 5.6%) and the change-up (thrown 3.5% of the time, down 7.8%). In 2013, Lester’s cutter was a negative-value pitch; this season, it’s one of his best. Conversely, his change-up was his best pitch last season and is the worst offering this year. What gives?
Part of what makes a cutter so effective is the lateness of its break. In fact, scouting a cutter is challenging, often requiring prior knowledge of a pitcher’s arsenal to classify a 2-5 MPH dip from a four-seam fastball the right way. Jon Lester’s cutter is moving less this season (and more slowly), yet it is more effective, indicating batters are having a tough time picking up the pitch until it’s too late. Indeed, Lester’s cutter is in the top-10 (a stark contrast to the past two seasons) and the southpaw is ringing up an additional two batters per nine. But at what cost?
The cut fastball works for some pitchers. Mariano Rivera made a Hall of Fame career out of the pitch. But the list goes on and on with cutter pitchers who sustained serious injury. Just two years ago, two of the best cutters in baseball belonged to Luke Hochevar (out for the year due to Tommy John surgery) and Jeff Karstens (thrown 7.0 minor league innings since 2012). Three data points don’t mean much, but additional casualties from the 2012 leaderboard include Jeff Niemann and Randy Wells, with Jon Niese, Gavin Floyd, and Johnny Cueto also missing time with arm injuries. Lester very well may be able to sustain his heightened cutter rate into his mid-thirties, though his current pitching profile suggests greater corresponding risk.
Jon Lester: Rent to Own? No, Thanks.
Jon Lester’s 2014 campaign clearly shows the benefit of adjustments. His 4.6 WAR is currently second best among pitchers, only trailing Felix Hernandez. Whichever team Lester takes the mound for will trot out a bona fide ace every fifth day. Lester’s resurgence and overall body of work put him in great shape to cash in this offseason.
Conservatively, a five-year deal worth $20 million annually would be the starting point. Ideally, Lester’s camp negotiates a six-year pact worth $150 million. However, his pitch usage points to a short-term gain in exchange for longevity, making the thought of paying a 36-year old Lester $25 million a bitter pill to swallow. Teams should bid with confidence to rent Jon Lester for the rest of 2014, but all bets are off going forward.
30 Jul 2014 / Ben Flajole /
Categories: MLB Analysis
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