Welcome to Player-A-Day. The purpose of this column is to identify interesting major league players who may be fantasy relevant in 2014. We will discuss the real-world roles that the player may fill, set a range of potential expectations, identify any wild card factors in play, and comment on how this affects the player’s fantasy value.
The high level
At the time of this writing, Jon Lester just finished a strong playoff start that should mark the end of his 2013 season. He went 7.2 innings and allowed only four hits while walking none and striking out seven. One run scored on a solo home run off the bat of Matt Holliday.
This capped a much needed bounce-back season for Lester. After he posted a 4.82 ERA in 2012, his role with the Red Sox was in question and his fantasy value was nonexistent. He got the numbers he needed and certainly looks better to the naked eye, but his statistics are worrisome.
For various reasons, owners in keeper leagues who drafted Lester cheap and enjoyed the solid season should strongly consider selling high over the offseason. His role with the Red Sox is secure and he’ll start plenty of ballgames, but the expected range of outcomes could be anywhere between his 2012 and 2013 numbers. For fantasy purposes, he can’t regress far from his 2013 and still remain a useful asset.
This article was originally going to be about Lester recovering his mojo and becoming a reliable fantasy starter once again. Surprisingly, that narrative doesn’t really fit the stats.
Let’s walk through the above table, which features various peripherals that can be used to predict future performance. FIP is used to measure the value of a pitcher, independent of his fielders. It’s useful for describing what (probably) should have happened.
As you can see, Lester realized a substantial improvement in his FIP between the two seasons (4.11 to 3.59). However, his xFIP scarcely budged. And xFIP is more useful for predicting future performance.
The reason we observe this with Lester is because the only thing that changed with these basic peripherals is his home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB). Most pitchers don’t demonstrate an ability to control this stat year-to-year. In other words, regardless of what a pitcher did last season, you can expect a major league average HR/FB rate next season.
From these basic numbers, we’re looking at a pitcher who will probably have a 3.90 ERA and good run support in 2014. Unless there’s a change in his skill set, the strikeout, walk, and whiff rates appear to be stable.
One noteworthy positive from the 2013 season is that his velocity improved throughout the year. During his best seasons back in 2009 and 2010, his four-seam fastball averaged over 94 mph while his sinker worked above 93 mph. He lost that oomph in 2011. Late in the 2013 season, his four-seamer was once again consistently over 94 mph, while his sinker was in the 92 mph range. The increased velocity didn’t result in more swinging strikes for his four-seam fastball, but his sinker and cutter did see an increased rate of whiffs. If he can carry over the velocity for a full season, he may see a modest improvement over his 2013 numbers.
The analysis of Lester is pretty straightforward. Buyers appear to be receiving a 3.90 ERA with an above-average win total, average strikeouts, and average WHIP. There is some modest scope for him to under/over perform those expectations, but generally speaking, this is what you should expect.
Lester’s also entering the point of his career where his past durability becomes worrisome. 2014 will be his age 30 season and he’s coming off the highest innings total of his career (including postseason starts). He’s started over 30 games in six consecutive seasons and failed to reach 200 innings pitched in only one of those, and that was a 191.2 IP season. Pitchers have a bad habit of breaking down rapidly and leaving unsuspecting fantasy owners as the victim.
Many will take his past durability as a reassuring sign and they may wind up being correct. Jon Garland took nine seasons of heavy workload before he fell apart. But many other pitchers break down much sooner.
My issue with past durability is that I have observed it leading to owners discounting injury risk in their preseason valuations. This results in the player becoming overpriced. Lester’s already on that fringe where his stats appear to have some value on draft day, but any little problem could result in him hurting rather than helping your team.
Ultimately, I recommend treading with care. He’s still a high-profile, name brand pitcher who is likely to be overpriced. These types of pitchers do get ignored from time to time in 12-team leagues. If you can take a flier for $3-8 (depending on your roster construction) then he’s worth considering. If he’s costing more than $8 in a 12-team league, it’s probably best to target somebody more interesting like Yordano Ventura.