By AJ Cassavell
SAN DIEGO -- The market for pitchers has developed significantly slower than the market for hitters this offseason, and the biggest reason seems to be Jon Lester.
But now that Lester has reportedly signed a six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs, there should be a trickle-down effect. The losers in the Lester sweepstakes will re-shuffle their plans, and the remaining pitchers will finally have an accurate gauge of where their talents are sought.
How exactly did Lester establish himself as the player to set the market on pitchers this offseason? And is he really worth $155 million? Let's break it all down.
That contract is tied with Masahiro Tanaka's for the highest among pitchers who have never won a Cy Young Award. (The highest Lester has ever finished in voting is fourth.)
Of course, there's a good chance Max Scherzer's eventual deal will go even higher, making Lester's the seventh-largest pitcher contract ever. Scherzer is younger -- though only by a matter of months -- and he's been better over the past two seasons.
Because they stand as the two elite pitching options who were free agents this winter, Lester's (relatively) cheaper price tag put him on track to sign first. (That, and the fact that Scherzer's agent Scott Boras is notorious for his wait-and-see approach.)
Here's a comparison of the two, using metrics adjusted for ballpark and opposition:
Scherzer: 127 ERA+, 2.85 FIP
Lester: 155 ERA+, 2.80 FIP
Scherzer: 128 ERA+, 2.95 FIP
Lester: 117 ERA+, 3.50 FIP
Five-year average: Scherzer: 120 ERA+, 3.34 FIP
Lester: 122 ERA+, 3.49 FIP
So Lester was slightly better this past season, Scherzer has been better over the past three seasons and they're fairly even over the past five, with Scherzer maybe holding a slight edge. (An edge I'd cancel out, given Lester's tendency to eat more innings and work deeper into games.)
Based on those numbers, it's reasonable to call Lester the better "deal" of the two, assuming Scherzer commands about $20-30 million more. But ultimately, the Cubs need to feel comfortable with two important trends -- one favoring the left-hander and one working against him. We'll start with the one that's working in his favor:
Lester was really bad in 2012. That's not a subjective assessment. His numbers (4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) were the caliber of a sub-par No. 4 starter. He wasn't especially good in '13 either. So why is Lester supposedly commanding ace-worthy money after recording one good season out of the last three?
Well, we'd first need to assess whether Lester's 2014 numbers are his benchmark or if a regression is likely. And to do that we have to figure out why he was successful in '14 and why he wasn't during the two previous seasons.
With Lester, that comes down to his pitch selection. Here's a breakdown of which pitches he threw over the past three years, courtesy of FanGraphs' pitch tracking system known as Pitch f/x:
1,112 fastballs: .307 BAA
953 sinkers: .296 BAA
491 curveballs: .226 BAA
454 cutters: .240 BAA
402 changeups: .240 BAA
1,288 fastballs: .257 BAA
833 sinkers: .276 BAA
572 cutters: .231 BAA
436 changeups: .221 BAA
426 curveballs: .244 BAA
1,433 fastballs: .218 BAA
869 cutters: .248 BAA
572 curveballs: .160 BAA
522 sinkers: .331 BAA
95 changeups: .273 BAA
There's one clear trend for Lester: He essentially swapped his cutter and his sinker within his arsenal. His sinker was bad, so he threw it less (953 times in 2012, 833 times in '13, 522 times in '14). His cutter was good, so he threw it more (454 times in '12, 572 times in '13, 869 times in '14).
With both pitches, his batting average against was actually worse in '14 than in either of the previous two years. But the fact that he was throwing the cutter significantly more frequently negated that.
It's an important distinction to make. If one of Lester's pitches got better at this point in his career, it would be worth asking why (and if it would regress to the mean). But based on those numbers, it appears as though he has the same tools he's always had -- only now he's using the right ones in the the right situations.
Lester is 30. How many pitchers have signed nine-figure contracts on the wrong side of 30? Four. And how many of those nine-figure deals ended up being worth it?
Contract: Seven years, $180 million, 2013-19
Pre-contract age: 30
Breakdown: Verlander was a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, coming off a pair of the best pitching seasons in Tigers history when he signed his record contract. Since then, he's been middle-of-the-rotation caliber. Yes, he's eating innings and winning a few games. But those results can be achieved for about $100 million less, and at this point it appears his swing-and-miss capabilities have diminished significantly.
Contract: Five years, $122 million, 2012-16
Pre-contract age: 31
Breakdown: Sabathia carried the Yankees on his back in 2011, garnering him an extension, which he hasn't come close to living up to -- whether due to injuries or inconsistency. Like Verlander, Sabathia may have been a case of projecting too much of the past onto an aging future.
Contract: Five years, $120 million, 2011-15
Pre-contract age: 32
Breakdown: Lee had a fantastic season in 2011 and has been quite good since, but hardly worth the $24 million per year he has commanded. It's impossible to fault Lee for any of the Phillies' failures over the past three seasons, but his massive contract hasn't helped their rebuilding process.
Contract: Seven years, $105 million, 1999-2005
Pre-contract age: 34
Breakdown: Brown was very good for the Dodgers in the first five years of his contract, but he didn't quite put up the numbers he posted in San Diego and Florida -- the numbers that earned him the deal. He fell off the map entirely in New York in the final two years, and given how other-worldly the contract was for its time, it's safe to say Brown didn't live up to it.
Obviously Lester's age isn't exactly comparable to Lee's or Brown's at the time they signed their contracts. But it's fair to say that the four pitchers who have signed nine-figure deals after hitting 30 haven't been worth their full contracts -- barring a massive turnaround from Sabathia or Verlander.
At the time these deals were signed, none seemed too outrageous. In all four cases, the pitchers who earned them were coming off world class seasons in which they were at the forefront of a postseason run. Lester is nowhere near the dominant ace that any of those four were when they signed.
Sure, Lester's numbers suggest he deserves to get paid fairly well. History, however, cautions teams against it, given his age.
Perhaps the biggest case against Lester being paid $155 million is what happens to the teams that didn't sign him. Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez and Nelson Cruz all got big money because there wasn't much help otherwise on the free-agent market in terms of middle-of-the-order threats.
That same quandry doesn't exist for teams in search of starting pitchers. There are a slew of cheaper secondary options, which will soften the blow for those who miss out on Scherzer or Lester.
There's James Shields, who has been mentioned with the two noted above. He turns 33 this month, so he'll come cheaper and for fewer years. Also available: Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana, Jake Peavy, Justin Masterson and Edinson Volquez.
Those are all short-term options for teams who might be hesitant to sign a legitimate ace. They're also stopgap options, given next offseason's free-agent crop of pitchers, which potentially includes David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Doug Fister, Ian Kennedy and Rick Porcello.
It's reasonable to expect Lester to merit the average annual value of his contract in 2015 -- and probably even '16. He's trending upward, and based on the adjustments he made in his pitch selection late in the second half of the '13 season, it's certainly fair to toss aside his prior struggles.
But does that mean Lester is worth the money that he got in the long run? For a team like the Cubs that is probably a year or two away from serious contention, this is probably a bit of a reach, because Lester will be starting to decline when the team needs him most.
Signing Lester to a $155 million contract is a high-priced risk. Given the current market and the history of teams who have taken similar gambles, we can say it's probably not worth it.