A: No, Jon Lester is not an ace

ESPN’s David Schoenfield asked a timely question yesterday: Is Jon Lester really an ace?

Timely, because not yet reading Schoenfield’s piece (which was posted two hours prior), I wrote this in one of my fantasy league’s message boards:

Unfortunately, Schoenfield made a lot of points I would have liked to make, most of them concerning overall value. Some of it concerned innings pitched. These kinds of things matter in fantasy, but not as much. Sometimes, innings can be harmful, in the sense that a pitcher who eats up a lot of your innings with bad starts, given your league has an innings cap, could do you more harm than good.

But I want to take a step back and look at it through a simpler lens. Lester had the 46th-best WHIP, arguably the best indicator of probably success among the traditional metrics, among qualified starters in 2011 before MLB.com ranked him No. 61 overall in their pre-2012 rankings. And, as Schoenfield states, his ERA ranked 34th. I’m more or less trying to paint the picture of a player who is perennially overrated. In fact, for the duration Schoenfield describes (2008 through 2014), Lester ranks 58th in WHIP and 36th in ERA. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the definition of “ace”, but I think if 30 other guys could be another team’s number-one, you shouldn’t be considered an ace.

The important distinction to make is a lot of those guys who were once good now suck, and Lester continues to be relatively good. For example, Roy Halladay, Dan Haren and Josh Johnson, among many, many others, were once considered top-shelf fantasy goods. That doesn’t really help Lester’s case, though, given a new wave of talented young pitching has completely changed the fantasy pitching landscape, at least in the short-term. Lester’s 2014 season, absolutely his best season by leaps and bounds, culminated with a 2.46 ERA and 1.10 WHIP — good for only 8th- and 16-best, respectively, among qualified starters.

So: Lester’s best year saw him barely scraping the top-10 threshold — at age 30, no less.

So: His strikeout rate soared and his walk rate plummeted. Are these gains even sustainable?

In his defense, he posted career bests in the following metrics: strike percentage, first-pitch strike percentage, 0-2 count percentage, 3-0 count percentage, number of three-pitch strikeouts. These are all things I would expect to see from a pitcher who just notched his best season. In fact, three of these statistics — strikes, first-pitch strikes, 3-0 counts — have all been trending in the right direction for at least four years. That doesn’t necessarily mean Lester can improve upon, or even merely repeat, his success.

The reason I’m concerned in the first place is my projections rank Lester 35th overall, with a 3.66 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. That is, it expects some severe regression.

I don’t think it will be that severe. Lester is a good pitcher, and he obviously knows how to make adjustments. He always seems to post a good ERA no matter how many runners he lets on base, but he also benefited from MLB’s 4th-best defense from 2008 through 2014. Granted, he moves to a Chicago team that ranks 8th (aka marginally worse) in that same time span. Unfortunately, that same Cubs defense plummeted to 17th overall last year, notching a below-average mark. (You can Corey Kluber and the rest of the Indians’ rotation why defense is important.)

And even Lester’s strikeout rate outperformed his peripherals by about 1.8 percent — that is, there’s reason to believe his strikeout rate should have been almost 2 percent lower in the first place, especially given that his strikeout rate was about even with his expected rate the past two years (about five-hundredths of a percent lower than expected, equivalent to half a strikeout each year).

Note: I will discuss expected strikeout percentage in an upcoming post.

My projections expect him to maintain most of the gains in strikeouts (21.0 percent) but for the walk rate to fall back in line with career norms. That sets him up for perhaps an above-average year compared to Jon Lester but a way-below-average year in terms of talking about aces, whether in fantasy or reality.

If you’re in a keeper league, you probably got him relatively cheap — and if you didn’t get him cheap, you can now cover yourself by lying and saying you saw it coming — so keeping him with the hopes of a repeat may not come so steep. But I anticipate Lester being even more overvalued than he usually is, and I will be avoiding him like the plague.

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