As a Cubs fan, when the North Siders signed Jon Lester last winter, I was pretty ecstatic. The Cubs were getting a top of the rotation arm and appeared to finally be turning a corner into a more competitive window. Sure, the contract might have been a bit more ambitious that I would have preferred, but that’s true with almost any big name free agent that gets signed. It’s often the cost of doing business.
Being the die-hard fan I am, I watched most of Lester’s starts this year. Lester had a solid season and performed like an ace in many starts, but I still can’t wipe the feeling that after his first season in a Cubs uniform, I’m a little underwhelmed. Theoretically, the first year of the contract should probably be the best one, as Lester will only get older going forward. While age may bring certain pitching wisdom, it will almost certainly cause a decline in velocity that more than offsets any other gains he might make.
The statistics and advanced metrics can tell different stories of Lester’s 2015 campaign depending on where you look. He posted a 3.34/2.92/3.06 ERA/FIP/xFIP, which ranges from good to excellent depending on the individual stat, but a 0.42 difference between his ERA and FIP is a fairly notable difference. Whether it’s something meaningful or simply randomness takes a little digging (and in reality it’s probably a combination of both).
Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR has Lester at 3.1 (37th in the MLB), while Fangraphs’ version has him up at 5.0, the 13th-highest total in the majors. Baseball Prospectus’s version of the statistic had him at just 2.8 wins, 29th in the bigs. These are all calculated by slightly different methodologies and formulas, so it’s normal to see some difference between them, but two whole wins is a pretty large difference (the difference, in fact, between the Pirates having the best record in baseball and being bounced from the playoffs before the division series).
I’m going to start using some abbreviations to make things easier, so here’s a quick table to help.
Fangraphs is the outlier here, with B-R and BP seemingly in agreement about Lester’s value. Fangraphs’ WAR, or fWAR, uses FIP when calculating the metric, rather than runs allowed. FIP is a statistic on the same scale as ERA that only incorporates things a pitcher can control—strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed—assuming everything else to be out of the pitcher’s control. Of course, this is not entirely true—we know some pitchers can induce more groundballs than others, for example—but it generally does a better job at telling us how a pitcher actually pitched (and how he’s likely to pitch in the future) than ERA.
Generally, I’m a big fan of FIP and Fangraphs’ decision to base its WAR metric on it. However, in the case of Lester, I think it dramatically inflates his value, maybe more so than any other pitcher in baseball, due to a combination of factors, all of which make his numbers on the surface look a little better than the value he actually provides.
Additionally, there are a number of other small things about Lester as a player that may lead to WAR overstating his value. Each one individually is fairly small, but the combination of all of them could lead us to overstate Lester’s value to the Cubs.
Controlling the Running Game
In the overall scheme of a pitcher’s job, controlling the running game is pretty minor. After all, the best way to control the running game is not to let hitters get on base, and even if they get on base and steal their way to third, a good pitcher can strand them there more than a bad one. That said, it’s a non-negligible part of a pitcher’s job, and it’s one at which Lester is terrible.
According to BP, Lester’s TRAA, or takeoff rate above average, is 15.90%, second-highest of any pitcher in baseball. This is, of course, due to Lester’s infamous inability to throw the baseball to first base in an attempt to pick runners off. With almost no fear of Lester throwing over, runners can take huge leads on him and start sprinting toward second base the moment he moves. Lester allowed 44 stolen bases this year, tops in the majors, and only seven other pitchers allowed even half that many steals against them this year.
FIP accounts only for the average rate at which runners score, so it doesn’t penalize Lester for his inability to hold baserunners. However, we obviously expect that a pitcher who allows a lot of stolen bases is going to give up more runs than one who doesn’t, which might be one reason why Lester’s ERA is so much higher than his FIP. Not accounting for opposing base stealers causes FIP, and thus fWAR, to overrate Lester.
Theoretically, this effect will already show up in rWAR since allowing runners to run freely will allow more runners to score, so Lester’s ERA will already reflect his poor ability to hold baserunners. More concretely, WARP factors in the amount of runs Lester’s inability to prevent baserunners from stealing cost him over the course of the season. fWAR is the only version of the stat that doesn’t account for this effect.
As you can probably guess, if Lester has trouble throwing to first base on pickoffs, he also has trouble throwing to bases after fielding a ground ball. Sure enough, Lester’s fielding this year was also very bad. By both DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), two advanced metrics that calculate a player’s value in the field, Lester was a below average fielder, costing the Cubs 8 runs according to DRS and 3 by FRAA’s measure. Taking the average of these, we’d estimate Lester’s fielding cost about five and a half runs, which is the second-worst mark in the majors among qualified starting pitchers and translates to about half a win.
One of the areas of baseball research that has been gaining a lot of steam in recent years is catcher framing, which is the idea that some catchers, by receiving a pitcher more fluidly, are better able to get pitches called strikes by the umpire than others. Lester pitched almost every start with Davis Ross, who is considered an excellent framer, behind the plate. According to BP, Ross gained 5.5 runs for his pitchers based on framing in 2015, good for 20th in baseball out of 109 catchers. This is despite the fact that Ross was a backup catcher and only caught 402 innings this year. (Miguel Montero, by comparison, caught over twice as many innings despite missing almost a month with an injury.)
With Lester pitching to Ross every time out, he was getting more favorable calls from umpires. BP’s WARP takes framing into account, but neither rWAR nor fWAR does, which means in those two metrics Lester is receiving credit for Ross’s ability to frame pitches. Once again, this means that those two measures slightly inflate Lester’s actual value. With Lester pitching for about half of Ross’s 402.1 innings at catcher, it seems fair to estimate that Lester received about half of the 5.5 runs Ross gained from framing. This very rough approximation leaves us with about a quarter of a win that was incorrectly credited to Lester due to framing.
No, hitting is not generally part of a pitcher’s job description, and Lester wasn’t brought in to do anything at the plate. But that doesn’t mean that pitchers can’t help or hurt their teams with the limited number of at bats they get. Pitchers are terrible hitters, but Lester is a terrible hitter even for a pitcher—he finally recorded the first hit of his career in July after beginning his career 0 for 66. Fangraphs has him at -0.4 offensive WAR, while B-R has him at -0.3, taking away another third of a win or so from Lester’s overall value.
This one isn’t something that would show up in WAR, and I’m not really sure of a great way to quantify it, but it’s a non-zero factor and almost certainly hurt the Cubs at least a little over the course of the season. Shortly after Lester signed last offseason, the Cubs inked David Ross to a two-year deal as their backup catcher. The Cubs’ front office insisted this wasn’t so that Ross could be Lester’s personal catcher, citing his defensive ability and leadership. I do believe the front office likes a lot of what Ross brings to the table as a backup catcher, but it’s hard to argue the bit about him not being a personal catcher for Lester was true.
It was clear from the start of the season that Ross was there to catch Lester, as Ross got the start on opening night against the Cardinals, despite Montero’s lefty bat seeming to match up better against the right-handed throwing Adam Wainwright. And sure enough, as soon as Lester left the game, Montero was subbed in and played the rest of the game behind the plate. This arrangement continued for the entire season and throughout the playoffs.
Of course, Ross has his value as a backup catcher—few backup catchers can hit, and most are just a body with some defensive value who can give the starting catcher a break every few days. But there were two things about the Ross signing and the way he was utilized that bugged me.
First, the Cubs already had a solid right-handed catcher in Welington Castillo. After they traded for Montero, they had a pretty nice setup, with Montero getting the majority of the starts and hitting against righties and Castillo spelling him as the backup and getting starts against lefties. However, by signing Ross, Castillo was essentially relegated to a pinch-hitting role for the first month of the season while occupying a valuable roster spot. He was finally traded for Yoervis Medina, who threw a total of 21 innings for the Cubs this year while posting a 4.71 ERA. Medina is now out of options heading into 2016, and since he probably won’t make the Cubs 25-man roster out of spring training, there’s a good chance he will not be a member of the Cubs organization for much longer. Castillo, meanwhile, went on to post a respectable .331 wOBA against lefties this year, much better than Ross’s pitcher-like .176. Lester’s need for Ross as a personal catcher cost the Cubs a valuable player who could have made the 2015 team better while returning them essentially nothing since the Cubs had so little leverage in trade talks (of course, that’s just speculation since I wasn’t involved in trade talks, but it appears that was probably the case).
Second, Lester’s need to have Ross catch him every time out prevented Joe Maddon from optimizing matchups. Ross could be a viable backup catcher by spelling Montero against tough lefty pitchers or other optimal matchups, but by having to start Ross whenever Lester pitched, Maddon was somewhat handcuffed when it came to being creative with how to utilize his two catchers. Often, in games Lester started, Ross would be subbed out for the superior Montero as soon as Lester was removed from the game, hinting that Maddon would have preferred to simply start Montero in the first place if given the opportunity.
By insisting on having Ross catch all of his starts, Lester essentially forced the Cubs to get rid of a valuable player for close to nothing and also prevented them from optimizing their lineup in games in which he pitched. There isn’t a great way to quantify this negative impact, but it definitely caused at least a little harm to the Cubs over the course of the season.
Jon Lester was certainly a valuable member of the Chicago Cubs this year and helped lead them to their first playoff appearance since 2008. All of the points I mentioned above are minor issues compared to the one thing Lester is best at, which is actually pitching baseballs. That said, all of these little things add up, and I can’t help but feel that he’s not quite as valuable as I once thought he was. For someone who is making over $25 million a year for six years, you would hope to get more than 2-3 wins out of him in the first year of the contract, as he’s likely to only get worse going forward.
I do think Lester is likely to age well given that he relies more on command than pure velocity or stuff, and his history of good health makes me more confident that he won’t break down as the years go on. Those two things both make the contract look a little better for the long haul. I also believe the Cubs front office, having worked with Lester before in Boston, was probably more comfortable with him and knew more about him than any other free agent pitcher they’re likely to have a chance at signing, providing more clarity on why they were comfortable giving him such a large contract.
In the end, I think we just need to appreciate Lester for what he is. He’s a durable lefty who will provide good value for years to come and can be a leader for a young Cubs clubhouse. But he’s not an ace, or even an elite number two starter. Is six years and $155 million (potentially 7/$170MM) a lot to pay for that type of player? Probably. But maybe that’s the cost of minimizing risk in the free agent pitching market. In the end, though, I’m left wondering if the Cubs paid too much for a guy who does a variety of minor things poorly enough to subtract a win or two from his overall value, which is otherwise pretty high.