Drinking The Juice: Jon Lester

With Pitchers and Catchers reporting this week, baseball season is in the air.

Those who know me know that I do not believe in high risks when it comes to fantasy. I believe in modest upside with low-to-no downside. I draft for value, not speculation. When my fellow league members will invest their fantasy dollars in subprime mortgage like gambles, I will be focused on the consistent performance stocks. My motto is not "reach for the stars." Especially when it comes to the early rounds of baseball, the name of the game is expectations. You can't generally win a league with your first seven picks, but you can lose it.

With this motto in mind, let's turn to one of my favorite 2010 starting pitchers; Jon Lester. Just 26 years old, Lester is entering the early years of his prime as much more than a feel-good baseball story a la Disney's The Rookie.

In four seasons, Jon Lester has gone from highly touted prospect to bonafide stud. The K rate is improving (from 6.64 per nine in 2007 to 9.96 in 2009) and the BB rate is shrinking (from 4.76 per nine in 06 to 2.83 in 2009). The groundballs are piling up (from 40.6% in 2006 to 47.7% in 2009), his secondary pitches are improving (his curveball has gone from -1.27 runs per 100/pitches in 2006 to +1.07 last season) and his cut fastball has become downright nasty (from -5.29 runs per 100/pitches in 2006 to +1.96 -- top 5 in the AL last season amongst starting pitchers).

The results? A decreasing contact rate (from 81.3% in 2006 to 74.6% in 2009) with an increased ability to get hitters to chase his pitches (his O-Swing% of 21.3% in 2006 has increased to 26.7 %). All signs point to "yes" when we ask "can Lester sustain his improvements."

Last season, Lester posted a 3.15 FIP and 3.13 xFIP. His 3.41 ERA last season, though still quite good, was largely inflated by a 5.67 ERA (and .370 BABIP) through the first two months of the season. From June through September, Lester was one of baseballs best pitchers. Even in April and May, Lester still piled in K's (74 in 65.1 IP) and tossed players a handful of wins (four, to be exact). Even if Lester regresses a bit in the strikeout department next season, the 3.41 ERA should be seen as the baseline, not the expectation.

Let's say Jon Lester pitches 200 innings next year. Assuming that Lester maintains the GB tendencies he's advanced and maintained in each of the past two seasons, even if Lester regresses to an 8.0 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 (even though it was 2.83 in both 2008 and 2009...) and even if he allowed a hit per inning, his FIP would be 3.65 with 177 Ks and a 1.33 WHIP to boot. That would be my low-end prediction for Lester. I expect a K rate closer to 9 per nine and a hit rate closer to 8.4 per nine. Such would put Lester in the 3.45 FIP, 1.25 WHIP range. Combine this with Boston's stellar and upgraded defense and I would project Lester's numbers as being even better.

Like another fantasy Man Crush of mine, Jon Lester has a quality 4-pitch mix built for success -- a mid-90s four-seam fastball, a high 80's cut fastball, a two-seam fastball, a mid-80s changeup, and a solid mid-70s curveball. Each is thrown at roughly the same arm slot and each has a variable level of horizontal and vertical break. Lester's weakest pitch, the change-up, is a tick above league average (+0.21 runs per 100 pitches). With such a deadly arsenal, Lester is able to effectively fool hitters and keep them off balance. There is absolutely no reason that he cannot repeat his fantasy 2009 season in 2010, if not find room to improve thanks to an improved defense and improving skill set. Say we start the bidding at $20?


Sexy Rexy said...

I love posts loaded with baseball cliches ("You can't win a draft in the first 7 rounds, but you can lose one)

and stating the obvious (Jon Lester is good; It's best to draft players with good upside and little to no downside)

Brandon Funston would be proud of you

Lester's gonna be a top 10 pitcher this year- enough said