Saturday, December 6, 2014

Red Sox Really Need Lester

The Red Sox need to pony up for Lester (CSNNE)
I know I'm not be saying anything particularly insightful or noteworthy here, but the Boston Red Sox really need to sign Jon Lester (and not just to appease David Ortiz).

Let me re-phrase that. What the Red Sox really need is at least one (probably two) great starting pitchers, and it just so happens that Lester fits the bill.

Lester's young (for a free agent), durable, and lefthanded. What more could you want?

Oh, and he also happens to be one of the best postseason pitchers ever.

Let's start with his age, because that's usually the most important aspect of any free agent's resume aside from his past performance. Lester's going to be 31 next year, still very close to his prime years. Seeing as how he just had the best season of his career, he's shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, many of his peripherals have shown steady improvement since 2011. His walk rate has decreased every year since then, while his inning  totals and K/BB ratio have climbed. His home run and hit rates have fallen over the past two years as well. One shouldn't expect those trends to continue given what we know about how baseball players age, but it's nonetheless encouraging that Lester has been getting better, not worse.

Perhaps that's because Lester has never suffered a serious throwing-related injury at the professional level. Since recovering from his bout with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, he's been one of the sturdiest pitchers in baseball. Since the start of the 2008 season he ranks seventh in starts and sixth in innings, not to mention sixth in pitching fWAR. He's made at least 31 starts and pitched at least 191 innings in each of the past seven seasons, topping 200 innings and 15 wins six times apiece.

That's important going forward because in 2013, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus determined that pitchers who have been injured are eight times more likely than other pitchers to get injured again. Pitchers are inherently risky investments, but Lester's less so.

Of course, Lester's done more than just eat innings during his nine-year career. He's made three All-Star teams and twice finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting. His 3.47 ERA since 2008 is the same as Justin Verlander's and better than those of James Shields, Dan Haren, and Tim Lincecum, among others, despite calling Fenway Park home for much of his career. According to FanGraphs, his ERA and FIP have both been 17 percent better than average after adjustments for league and park. He's been worth at least three wins above replacement in each of the past seven years, exceeding five fWAR in a year four times. And as much as I hate traditional wins, his .634 career winning percentage is very impressive.

Then there's his postseason resume, which is simply marvelous. Lester's been lights-out in October with a sparkling 2.57 ERA in 14 postseason appearances, including a microscopic 0.43 ERA in his three World Series starts (all wins). A two-time World Series champion with Boston, Lester's a proven big-game pitcher in the same mold as Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett, seemingly always at his best when the lights shine the brightest.

As if that doesn't make Lester attractive enough, he's also a southpaw, which makes him an even more desirable commodity. Terrific lefties, especially ones that can thrive at Fenway Park, don't grow on trees (nearly three-quarters of big league pitchers are right-handed).

Like other talented lefties such as CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Johan Santana, and Clayton Kershaw, Lester's going to cost a small fortune. He's reportedly fielding offers in the neighborhood of $130 million over six years, on par with Boston's bid. If Boston truly is Lester's first choice, one has to imagine he'll sacrifice a few million dollars to come back (sorry, Cubs). But if the Dodgers blow those offers out of the water, then that's where he'll end up; in a superb pitcher's park, mowing down weaker National League competition for the likely NL West champions.

If that happens, the Red Sox will have only themselves to blame. Because Lester let them have the first crack at re-signing him, and they blew it.

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