Similarity Scores and Jon Lester

Jon Lester's future may come into focus over the next couple of weeks (RLRS Photo).

Jon Lester’s future may come into focus over the next couple of weeks (RLRS Photo).

One of the big stories in the next few weeks is that Jon Lester is likely to be either re-signed or established as a major trade chip for the selling Sox. The temptation is to see Lester as someone who should be re-signed and I will admit if it were me I would go 5/120 and I think that would do it.

I think some of the chatter both among people at this blog and in other places are elevating Lester beyond what he should be. Lester is going to be 31 years old next year and while his track record of health is good one need only look at C.C. Sabathia who signed an extension between his age 30 and 31 seasons as an example of the type of risk that exists.

With that in mind I thought I would take a tour of Jon’s BBRef page; specifically the list of pitchers most similar to him through age 29 (the last year they have for him) to see how they panned out in the five years after their age 30 season. This is hardly a conclusive approach but I think it is worth considering;

Kevin Millwood
Age 30 – 192 IP, 147 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 156 starts, 96 ERA+

Not a great start here. Millwood’s age 30 season is really an outlier as 2003 had been OK and 2004 disappointing when he rebounded in 2005. Millwood was healthy those next five seasons but largely ineffective.

more comps coming right up!

Andy Pettitte
Age 30 – 134.2 IP, 135 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 150 starts, 120 ERA+

That is more like it. Pettitte has always been a good comp for Lester. Both are big lefties, durable and very good generating more value than their rate stats would have you believe by virtue of that durability. Lester’s agent John Yates will likely make the same arguments.

 

There are more people on this list than watched Josh Beckett in Fort Myers sometimes (RLRS Photo).

There are more people on this list than watched Josh Beckett in Fort Myers sometimes (RLRS Photo).

Josh Beckett
Age 30 – 127.2 IP, 75 ERA+
Age 31 – 34 – 83 starts, 113 ERA+

I have to confess I would not have pegged Beckett as either that good or with that many starts over the past 3 ½ seasons. Given the way he has moved forward he is a point in Lester’s favor. Of course stylistically the enigmatic Beckett is a long way from the metronomic Lester.

Mark Mulder
Age 30 – 1.2 IP, 48 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – N/A

Just a hunch but Yates may conveniently “forget” about Mulder when he is laying out comps for Lester. The reality is that Mulder was toast by the time he was 28.

 

John Lackey is proving the mid-30s can be a good time to be a pitcher (RLRS Photo).

John Lackey is proving the mid-30s can be a good time to be a pitcher (RLRS Photo).

John Lackey
Age 30 – 176.1 IP, 115 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 108 starts, 93 ERA+

In Lackey’s case the age 30 season is his final one as a Halo. I think it is safe to assume you are pretty aware of what the next five years held for Lackey. As a rule of thumb my M.O. with pitchers is to assume at least one lost season out of five due to injury either causing missed time or greatly reduced effectiveness. That Lackey lost two seasons; one to sucking and one to surgery, is down to the Sox’ quality medical staff.

Jack McDowell
Age 30 – 192 IP, 95 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 24 starts, 87 ERA+

McDowell’s age 31-35 seasons stop at age 33 with his final season of 1999. McDowell was Lester-esque with his reliability both in performance and taking the baseball before a bad 1996 season. That proved to be a harbinger rather than an aberration.

Pat Hentgen
Age 30 – 199 IP, 102 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 84 starts, 95 ERA+

Cy Young notwithstanding Hentgen was never the pitcher Lester has been on a consistent basis. That continued in his 30s with Hentgen alternative not being very good with not being very healthy.

 

Fortunately I had my wide angle lens with me on this day (RLRS Photo).

Fortunately I had my wide angle lens with me on this day (RLRS Photo).

Bartolo Colon
Age 30 – 242 IP, 120 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 102 starts, 96 ERA+

Colon’s age 31-35 seasons include the Cy Young that he unquestionably earned over lesser pitchers like Johan Santana and his aborted stint with the Red Sox. Suffice it to say that was an up and down period. Actually, the seven start effort with the Sox in 2008 was his second best ERA of the five.

Jake Peavy
Age 30 – 111.2 IP, 88 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 73 starts, 107 ERA+

Given that 2014 is Peavy’s age 33 season I am comfortable forecasting that 107 ERA+ to go down. Peavy was having injury issues in his age 28-30 seasons (51 starts total) and returned with a strong age 31 season in 2012. He has not built on that over the last couple of seasons.

Roy Halladay
Age 30 – 225.1 IP, 121 ERA+
Age 31 – 35 – 155 starts, 145 ERA+

Along with Pettitte this represents the best case scenario for the team signing Lester moving forward. Halladay’s age 31-35 seasons are virtually indistinguishable from his age 26-30 seasons and this is what some team will be spending a lot of money on with Jon Lester.

Ultimately nothing is certain here. One piece of good news here is that for the most part this supports the idea that good prior health is an indicator of good future health. The pitchers who struggled to stay health and effective from age 31 to 35 were pitchers who had that problem prior to age 31. That they had similar numbers to Lester is indicative of a more peaks and valleys career (e.g. Beckett).

I am still more than a bit skeptical about a Lester deal. Pitchers scare the crap out of me which should be a mark in his favor given what I just wrote. I cannot watch what Sabathia is going through right now and not think that Jon Lester’s path is going to be similar. Everything you would say about Lester in terms of performance and durability was true about Sabathia until it was not anymore. Heck, Sabathia even mixed in the second best K rate of his career at age 30 (Lester’s is currently third best of his career).

Looking at this list of comps makes me feel a bit more confident in Lester’s future. I will close with the prediction that at some point over the All Star Break the Sox and Lester will announce a contract extension that keeps him in carmine hose for many years to come.

18 thoughts on “Similarity Scores and Jon Lester

  1. Dan

    Sabathia is an odd comp to get hung up on unless you think Lester is going to put on 100 lbs. over the next offseason.

  2. Matt

    @Dan:

    Sabathia is an odd comp to get hung up on unless you think Lester is going to put on 100 lbs. over the next offseason.

    Agreed. Broadly speaking, the only thing that’s been able to stop Jon Lester from taking the ball every five days is friggin’ cancer.

  3. Jose Post author

    @Matt: I get what you are both saying but Sabathia was everything Lester was until he wasn’t anymore. He took the ball every five days (every four with Milwaukee) and was effective and reliable.

    Then he stopped being effective or reliable.

    If you want a comp that isn’t Sabathia I’d point to Dave Stieb who lost it fast. Johan Santana is another one. Finding pitchers who were incredibly reliable until they stopped being reliable is not that challenging. Paying for a pitcher into his 30s is far from a sure thing no matter how good they look up to that point.

  4. Textbook Editor

    I’m pretty sure the Red Sox aren’t going to stretch to re-sign him. Maybe 5/$100 (or maybe less than that) winds up being their best offer… And I’m sort of OK with this. I wouldn’t want to suffer through a Barry Zito end to Lester’s time here if he winds up falling apart 3 years into a 6 year deal or something like that. I mean, Clemens left. Boggs left. Pedro left. Papi will leave one day. The ones who stayed are pretty much Dewey Evans (I think), Wakefield, and Yaz (in my lifetime). They pretty much all leave. I’m not going to be happy about it, but everyone can’t be Red Sox for life–we’d wind up with very bad teams if we took that approach.

    I know they have money to spend, and I know I’m not entirely sure they’d spend the money correctly. But I’m fine with going with kids and seeing what we have. Having the tactical and contractual flexibility of an Oakland (but the financial resources to stretch that if we had to) would not be an awful thing.

    I’ll miss Lester, but I don’t want the Red Sox taking a Phillies approach to its homegrown talent either…

  5. Matt

    @Jose: I share your general concerns about making big contractual commitments to pitchers, especially older* pitchers. However, one thing Lester’s got going for him is an ideal pitcher’s build. According to bb-ref, he’s listed at 6’4″ 240, which puts him pretty much exactly in the middle between Santana (6’0″ 210) and Sabathia (6’7″ 285). Happy medium? I kinda think so. Lester’s got the bigger frame (and very strong legs) you normally associate with durability, but he’s not sloppy big like Sabathia. I think if you’re going to pass on signing a guy like Lester on health concern grounds, then you’re going to end up not signing any pitcher ever. He’s about as good as it gets.

    * I’m in my mid-thirties, and I’m not sure if or when it will ever stop being strange and disconcerting to refer to athletes who are younger than I am as “over the hill” in a sporting context.

  6. Wounded Knee

    I think a best possible case scenario for Lester would be a Curt Schilling career, although Schilling basically shifted into a HoF-level gear after 30. Same for Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, although I doubt you’d want to project anyone to do what those guys did.

    Mussina averaged 207 IP, 116 ERA+ from 31-36 although he was a lot better than Lester at age 30, and I’m not sure I trust Lester to have Mussina’s smarts in figuring out how to pitch with diminished stuff. Dan Haren, Kelvim Escobar, Javier Vazquez, Matt Morris, I think those guys are non-insane comps for Lester as well, and few of them fared very well after 30. Roy Oswalt was on a borderline HoF track until he fell apart at 33.

    No comp is perfect, but it seems like betting a guy is going to be worse after 30 than before is usually one you’re going to win.

  7. Jose Post author

    No comp is perfect, but it seems like betting a guy is going to be worse after 30 than before is usually one you’re going to win.

    Agreed. This was what kind of drove me to this post. I was just looking at Lester’s BBRef page and the range of outcomes for the comps was interesting to me.

    I’m in my mid-thirties, and I’m not sure if or when it will ever stop being strange and disconcerting to refer to athletes who are younger than I am as “over the hill” in a sporting context.

    Mariano was the last player in MLB older than me. There are no active players left who are my age. That was tough. It’s funny when I was a kid any player who was born in the 50s was young, then Yaz’ debut (’61) was my cutoff, then my birth (’70), then my brother (’79), now it’s high school graduation (’89). Ripken was a killer because he was the first player who I watched consciously as a rookie, then as a star, then retired then into the Hall of Fame.

  8. Jose Post author

    Happy medium? I kinda think so. Lester’s got the bigger frame (and very strong legs) you normally associate with durability, but he’s not sloppy big like Sabathia. I think if you’re going to pass on signing a guy like Lester on health concern grounds, then you’re going to end up not signing any pitcher ever. He’s about as good as it gets.

    This is my fear. I think as a general rule every big contract sucks at some point, the question is how much are you willing to eat in exchange for the good years. To your point I agree that Lester “looks” like a pitcher should look. If I had to bet on a guy staying good in his 30s he would fit the bill.

  9. coreymaxvt

    I think the bigger concern in general here is if we don’t re-sign Lester to something like 5/120, what do we replace that ace at the front of our thin rotation? I am all for letting Lester go.. if we end up with Max Scherzer for 6/130.. or something… but that puts us right back in the “how durable is this guy?” argument because he’ll be 30 next year. It’s essentially the same contract. We know Lester can pitch (and do it well) in Boston, we don’t know that Scherzer works out here.

    I would be very mad of the sox decide to dump Lester unceremoniously without a competitive offer and don’t try to replace him with an upgrade. Something about Lackey, Lankador, Buchholz, Workman.. umm.. Owens..? I dunno, doesn’t sound like AL East competitive material to me.

  10. Toby

    I am fine with letting Lester walk. The rotation will be filled by younger pitchers with less track record and I am fine with that, too.

    Oh, and Dewey finished as an Oriole.

  11. Wounded Knee

    @coreymaxvt:

    Well, free agency does exist. Shields, Burnett, Santana, Hammel, Liriano, Masterson, Vogelsong, and Volquez are out there. Anderson, Gallardo, Haren, and Johnson have options. Now, are any of those guys very good? Except for Shields, not really. Of course, the O’s are in 1st place with what appears to be the worst rotation in the division, so you never know.

    The Red Sox do have the pieces to make a trade, if they want. I’m not sure what kind of value Webster/Barnes/Ranaudo might still have, but it seems like a deal could be made. Ranaudo and Webster have some flashy-looking ERAs, at least.

  12. Matt

    @coreymaxvt:

    please god don’t trade peavy for an old cardinal outfielder.

    The only Cardinal outfielder over 30 is Matt Holliday, and I don’t think they’re going to trade him for Jake Peavy.

    Allen Craig, who’s 29 for another week and a half, is the name being bandied about. If the Cards are willing to deal him for Peavy, you couldn’t put the paperwork in front of me fast enough.

  13. Jose Post author

    @Jacksone: He was hurt in the WS last year and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some carry over. My gut is to agree with Matt that he’d be a great get but I wouldn’t be shocked if he was toast. He’s already 29, I thought he was younger.

    The other thing is the Cardinal effect. They don’t make a lot of mistakes, if they are giving someone up there is a good chance he’s done.

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