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Why You Should Avoid Jon Lester in 2015 Fantasy Baseball Drafts

Let’s be honest: Off the diamond, it’s hard NOT to root for Jon Lester. To see him overcome cancer to become a World Series-winning pitcher is the kind of sports fairy tale that even Disney wishes they could have written. In 2014, Lester finished the year as the No. 7 overall starting pitcher on ESPN’s “Player Rater” system, considering the standard five Rotisserie categories. But I’m going to list out several reasons why to avoid Jon Lester in 2015 Fantasy Baseball leagues.

Lester currently ranks as the No. 13 starting pitcher and the No. 46 overall player per Tristan Cockcroft’s preseason rankings on ESPN, and other sites/writers are high on him as well.

But I am deeply concerned about drafting Lester where I’d need to in order to get him. Lester is now on the wrong side of 30, but age is not a factor in my hesitation.

3 Reasons Why You Should Avoid Jon Lester!

I have identified three statistical anomalies about Lester’s 2014 that have convinced me that those paying top-dollar for Lester — and expecting a Top 50 player — are going to be sorely disappointed.

Factor No. 1 — xFIP

For those of you unfamiliar with how xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) works, perhaps the easiest way to explain it is to link you to the FanGraphs explanation on the stat.

The basic gist is that xFIP is designed to factor in what a pitcher’s ERA should be, based on the amount of walks, strikeouts, hit batters, and home runs allowed by said pitcher. Whereas FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) calculates what a pitcher’s ERA should be based on what his actual home run/flyball rate (HR/FB%) is, xFIP calculates that figure by giving every pitcher a league-average HR/FB%.

We use xFIP by comparing a pitcher’s ERA to xFIP. An ERA that is significantly lower than xFIP suggests that pitcher got lucky and his ERA may not be repeatable, whereas an ERA that is significantly higher than xFIP suggests that pitcher was unlucky and should see better days ahead.

In Lester’s case, his 2014 ERA was 2.46, while his xFIP was 3.10. To be clear, a 3.10 xFIP is still a very good number and makes Lester a very valuable pitcher. But that is a difference of over 6/10ths of a run. That is a significant difference.

Keep in mind, it took Lester having a 2.46 ERA, even with his fantastic WHIP (1.070), 220 Ks, and 16 wins, to be a top-10 pitcher. If his ERA comes back to his xFIP, even at a 3.10 figure, he almost certainly won’t return your investment on Draft Day.

Factor No. 2 — Walks

As I mentioned above, part of the xFIP calculation includes a pitcher’s walk totals. Let’s take a look at Lester’s walks per nine innings pitched (BB/9) going back only to 2008 when he became a full-time member of the Red Sox rotation:

  • 2008: 2.82 BB/9
  • 2009: 2.83 BB/9
  • 2010: 3.59 BB/9
  • 2011: 3.52 BB/9
  • 2012: 2.98 BB/9
  • 2013: 2.83 BB/9
  • 2014: 1.97 BB/9

Could you identify the outlier? And we’re not talking just a small improvement. Lester walked nearly a full batter less per 9 IP than in any prior big-league season of his career. That’s a significant difference. To be fair, per FanGraphs, Lester’s fastball velocity has lost 2 miles per hour between 2010 (a career-best 93.5 mph) and 2014 (a career-low 91.5 mph). But even at a 93.5 mph average, Lester never had an overpowering fastball. He’s largely been a guy who’s relied on 4-5 pitches to get hitters out.

Based off of this, I’m very skeptical that Lester suddenly became a beacon of pinpoint control, especially since there doesn’t appear to be any kind of organizational change. Yes, Lester was traded to Oakland, but Lester’s first-half BB/9 (2.02) was still a huge upgrade from his career norms. In other words, despite pitching most of the year with the same club he had spent his entire career with, Lester suddenly became a significantly more pinpoint pitcher? Call me a skeptic.

As a result, I expect Lester to walk more batters this year. That should lead to a higher WHIP, and presuming that some of those walked batters score, it will likely lead to a higher ERA as well.

Factor No. 3 — Home Runs

Last but not least, Lester’s 2014 was a drastic outlier in his home run rates. But it’s not just home runs that we need to look at. To understand just how much of an outlier his home run rates were, we also have to look at his groundball and flyball rates for 2014.

Throughout his career, Lester has largely been a significant groundball pitcher (in this context, looking at Lester’s GB/FB rate and his overall GB percentage). Between 2008 and 2012, Lester’s GB/FB rate was anywhere from 1.38 to 1.81, and his GB% was anywhere between 47.5% to 53.2%. Predictably, Lester’s FB% was relatively low in these years, at no higher than 34.5%.

Here are Lester’s figures in these categories over the last two seasons:

  • 2013: 1.27 GB/FB, 45.0 GB%, 35.4 FB%
  • 2014: 1.14 GB/FB, 42.4 GB%, 37.0 FB%

In addition, Lester actually gave up fewer homers in 2013 (19) and 2014 (16) than he did in the two previous years (20 in 2011; 25 in 2012). Since 2012, Lester’s HR/FB percentage (the percentage of flyballs that become home runs) dropped from 13.9% to 8.3% to 7.2%. And this all takes into consideration that Lester’s two highest Innings Pitched seasons were — you guessed it — 2013 (213.1) and 2014 (219.2).

In other words, despite pitching more innings than ever before, and despite allowing more flyballs than ever before, Lester saw his HR numbers and rates drop. This kind of development doesn’t just happen overnight like this without significant luck being involved. And considering Wrigley Field’s reputation come July and August, I don’t think Lester’s home ballpark will do him many favors.

Conclusion: What Does All This Mean?

I absolutely do not believe that Lester can continue to pitch the way he has without giving up more homers.

I also do not believe that he can repeat his control improvements. Lester has pitched at least 190 innings every year since 2008, and all but 11 starts came in Boston. Therefore, I don’t see a logical explanation for how Lester suddenly became a control dynamo.

And lastly, Lester significantly outperformed his xFIP.

When you combine these three factors, it leads you to this: Lester will likely walk more batters and give up more home runs in 2015. These two normalizations should lead to a normalization of his ERA as well.

FanGraphs’ Steamer system projects Lester for a 3.31 ERA and 1.17 WHIP with 13 wins and 185 Ks. I think that is a far more reasonable expectation for Lester than his 2014 line.

Now, is that a good line? Of course. But is it a top 10 starting pitcher line? No. Is it even a top 20 line? Frankly, as deep and as good as pitching is these days, I’m not so sure.

If I have an opportunity for Lester to be my SP2 or even my SP3, I might own him. But even in a 10-team league, that may involve you waiting until Round 8 or later to draft Lester.

I mainly play in leagues of 12-14 teams, and that may mean taking Lester as early as Round 7 in 12-teamers and as early as Round 6 in 14-teamers. Given the offensive dearth in today’s game, I don’t think you can afford to spend three of your first six to eight picks on starting pitching.

Therefore, barring an epic drop in value, I will avoid Jon Lester in 2015 Fantasy Baseball leagues, and given the information above, I would recommend against you drafting him as well.

Jon Lester Photo Credit: Keith Allison

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