Tagged: Jon Lester

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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An impossibly hot stove and an embarrassingly long absence

The stove is hot, people. HOT! And as Every Time I Die once said: I been gone a long time. Sorry about that. I finished the first term of my last year of graduate school. It was probably the hardest one, and it should be smooth sailing from here on out.

I’m also pretty proud of a research paper I just completed regarding the probability of future success of minor leagues. The results are robust and I couldn’t be more pleased. It was a school project, so I didn’t have time to make it nearly as complex as I would have hoped, but it’s something I plan to further investigate in the coming days, weeks, months, what-have-you.

Anyway, there is plenty of news flying around as well as plenty of analysis. I’ll do my best to recap, but surely I’ll miss some things:

And I’m ignoring all the prospects involved as well. Marcus Semien, Austin Barnes, Jairo Diaz and others got shipped. I can only imagine a whole lot more action will be happening soon, as there still are teams with surpluses and deficits at all positions and some big-name free agents left on the market, including Max Scherzer and James Shields.

It is clear, however, that the Cubs  and Blue Jays intend to more than simply contend. I would say the Marlins intend to as well, but I don’t even think they know what they’re doing, let alone we do. The White Sox are looking like a trendy sleeper with some key pitching additions (LaRoche is also an addition, but far from what I would call a “key” one), but they are far from a championship team.

But with so much more yet to happen, maybe it’s best to wait and see. There are obviously some ballpark and team-skill implications that will affect all these players’ projections, but I’ll get around to those in 2015.

I’ve finished my preliminary set of pitcher projections. I’ll share them but they’ll see some refining by the time March rolls around.

I’m also looking at how my projections fared last year. That will come in the next couple of days.

Keep your ear to the ground, people. Or to the stove. Never mind. Terrible idea. You’ll burn yourself. Just keep it to the ground.

Six pitchers I’m not targeting in drafts

As much as it feels good to correctly bet on a bounceback, it sucks harder to be the guy who loses the coin flip. I looked at my 2012 standard 5×5 rotisserie auction draft and the list is, frankly, hilarious. The top 10 pitchers were:

  1. Clayton Kershaw ($32)
  2. Roy Halladay ($31)
  3. Justin Verlander ($26)
  4. Felix Hernandez ($26)
  5. Tim Lincecum ($24)
  6. Jered Weaver ($24)
  7. Cliff Lee ($23)
  8. Dan Haren ($21)
  9. Cole Hamels ($19)
  10. CC Sabathia ($19)

Wow. That was only two years ago. Half those names have fallen from grace — more than half if you’re in the camp that think last year was not an anomaly for Verlander and that we’ve reached the beginning of the end with him. It’s truly hard to believe that anyone thought Halladay would be the second-best pitcher in the MLB in 2012 after the numbers he put up, but it just goes to show how suddenly a pitcher’s decline can sneak up on everyone.

Humorously enough, three of the pitchers in that top 10 make my forthcoming list of pitchers who I will not be targeting in drafts. This can also be viewed as a list of the largest differences between ESPN’s and my rankings.

Justin VerlanderESPN rank: 14, My rank: 25
I have more faith in his strikeout rate, but ESPN has more faith in his overall effectiveness. Truth is, he didn’t suffer an abnormally high BAbip or anything like that. He was simply more hittable and, honestly, ESPN’s projection doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider that fewer strikeouts should lead to a higher probability he will give up a hit. Regardless of how you feel about him, it’s the offseason surgery that freaks me out. Does that not freak YOU out? It came out of nowhere, and there are rumors he may not even be ready for Opening Day. Toss in the fact that he has a pretty rigorous offseason routine that, for the first time, he won’t be able to stick to, and you have a guy that may not only start the season but also be out of shape, relative to his standards. Unless I get him as low as 30th, he’s not worth the risk.

Shelby Miller | ESPN rank: 26, My rank: 48
This is not a testament to Miller’s abilities — he’s a very good pitcher. This time, ESPN believes more in the strikeout rate; my research leads me to bet against it, although I’m sure he has the capability to improve. The most important aspect of his game this year will be how deeply he pitches into games. I’m not banking on 200 innings, let’s put it that way. I simply believe he will be overvalued on draft day, especially if ESPN thinks he will be better than Gerrit Cole or Alex Cobb. Even if Cole doesn’t ramp up the strikeouts, I still can’t get behind them on this one (Cole struck out 10 batters per nine innings over his handful of starts and was an absolute beast. He gasses 100 mph). Miller is o-ver-ra-ted. Case closed.

Hyun-jin Ryu | ESPN rank: 31, My rank: 50
I actually think he will perform better than ESPN thinks. I also think ESPN simply underrates a lot of players. They have an audience to please, and I think intuition prevails sometimes, even if it’s wrong. Ryu is good but not elite; he pitches more to contact but keeps the ball on the ground. With that said, the strikeout rate suffers, so he’s not really a guy I want on my team. However, he’ll get wins, and that’s great. But we all knows wins are unpredictable. Ask 2012 Cliff Lee and 2013 Cole Hamels. (Or maybe just don’t pitch for the Phillies next time.) Anyway, again, another case of overrating in my opinion.

Jon Lester | ESPN rank: 37, My rank: 56
With so much pitching depth, there’s no reason to tolerate a career 1.30 WHIP and a pedestrian K/9 rate since 2012 just to bank on wins. It only takes one bad year.

CC Sabathia | ESPN rank: 39, My rank: 41
At least ESPN and I are on the same page on this one. Still, what if it gets worse? I think 41st is a neutral projection, and with Hiroki Kuroda and Tony Cingrani following right behind, there are clearly other worthy commodities for which you can pass up Sabathia. Also, don’t forget that these rankings don’t tell you exactly how closely players are ranked together. Players within five slots or so of one another are practically interchangeable.

Dan Haren | ESPN rank: 44, My rank: 73
Let me make my official declaration: Dan Haren’s strikeout rate is NOT back — I repeat, NOT back! ESPN only sees a slight regression, but I dug deeper into PITCHf/x data and basically revealed Haren’s strikeout rate in 2013 was anomalous. I truly think he is more likely to record fewer than seven strikeouts per nine (aka 6.9 K/9) than 7.7 K/9 as expected by ESPN. Be warned, friends. The Dodgers will make his win column tolerable, but only if he pitches somewhat respectably — and I don’t know if he’s capable of doing that. As I’ve said a hundred times already, there’s simply too much volatility here.

Honorable Mentions:
Julio Teheran – He’s good, but I’d rather another owner jump the gun on him (which I can almost guarantee will happen) and pass up on better talent for him.
Jeff Samardzija – Serious question: has he ever won more than nine games? (Also, not coincidentally, a rhetorical question.)
Zack Wheeler – ESPN is really bullish on him. Maybe I’ll be the guy who misses the breakout year, but he finished 2013 with a 4.1 BB/9. He walked 5+ guys in four starts, and failed to strike out more batters than he walked in five. That’s simply unacceptable, and command does not shore up overnight.

The role of luck in fantasy baseball

I apologize for being that guy that ruins that ooey gooey feeling you get when think about the fantasy league you won last year. As much as you want to think you are a fantasy master — perhaps even a fantasy god — you should acknowledge that you probably benefited from a good deal of luck. Sure, for your sake, I will admit you made a great pick with Max Scherzer in the fifth round. But did you, in all your mastery, predict he would win 21 games?

Don’t say yes. You didn’t. And frankly, you would be crazy to say he’ll do it again.

I focus primarily on pitching in this blog, and let it be known that pitchers are not exempt from luck in the realm of fantasy baseball. If you’re playing in a standard rotisserie league, you probably have a wins category. In a points league, you likely award points for wins.

Wins. Arguably the most arbitrary statistic in baseball. Let’s not have that discussion, though, and instead simply accept the win as it is. The win has the most drastic uncontrollable effect on a fantasy pitcher’s value. (ERA and WHIP experiences similar statistical fluctuations, but at least they aren’t arbitrary.)

I had an idea, but before I proceed, let me interject: if you’re drafting for wins, you’re doing it wrong. But, as I said, you can’t ignore wins.

But let’s say you did, and drafted strictly on talent, or “stuff” (which, here, factors in a pitcher’s durability). How would the top 30 pitchers change? Here’s my “stuff” list, which you can compare with the base projections:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez

Here are the five players with the biggest positive change and a breakdown of each:

  1. Brandon Beachy, up 23 spots
    His injury history has weakened his wins column projection. Consequently, the number of innings Beachy is expected to throw is significantly less than a full season. But if he managed to stay healthy for the full year (say, 200 innings)? He’s a top-1o pick based on pure stuff. If you draft with the philosophy that you can always find a viable replacement on waivers, Beachy could be your big sleeper.
  2. Marco Estrada, up 22 spots
    Estrada’s diminished expected wins is more a function of his terrible team than ability. Estrada has underperformed the past two years, Ricky Nolasco style, but if he can pull it together, he’s a top-30 pitcher based on “stuff.” And hey, maybe he can luck into some extra wins. However, if he can’t pull it together — Ricky Nolasco style — he’ll be relegated to fringe starter.
  3. Danny Salazar, up 9 spots
    Salazar has immense potential. His injury history led the Indians to cap his per-game pitch count last year, and that has been factored into his projection. But if he’s a full-time, 200-inning starter? He’s a top-25 starter with top-15 upside. Again, this is in terms of “stuff”. But is Ivan Nova better than Felix Hernandez because he can magically win more games? Of course not. Among a slew of young studs, including Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and so on, Salazar is a diamond in the rough.
  4. A.J. Burnett, up 8 spots
    His projection is already plenty good. But you saw how many games he won in 2013. Anything can happen.
  5. Corey Kluber, up 8 spots
    Most people were probably scratching their heads when they saw Kluber’s name listed above. Frankly, I’m in love with him, and it’s because he’s a stud with a great K/BB ratio. I understand why someone may be inclined to dismiss it as an aberration, but his swinging strike and contact rates are truly excellent. Even if they regress, he should be a draft-day target.

Here are the three starting pitchers with the biggest negative change.

  1. Anibal Sanchez, down 10 spots
    He’s great, but he also plays for a great team. Call it Max Scherzer syndrome. He carries as big a risk as any other player to pitch great but only win five or six games, as do the next two players.
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma, down 6 spots
  3. Zack Greinke, down 4 spots

Let me be clear that although I created a hypothetical scenario where wins didn’t exist, I don’t advocate for blindly drafting based on “stuff.” It’s important to acknowledge that certain players have a much better chance to win than others. Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox could win 17 games just as easily as he could win seven. It’s about playing the odds — and unless a pitcher truly pitches terribly, don’t blame the so-called experts for your bad luck. He probably put his money where his mouth is, too, and is suffering along with you.

Here is a more comprehensive list of pitchers ranked by “stuff,” if that’s the way you sculpt your strategy:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez
  31. Doug Fister
  32. Jordan Zimmermann
  33. Alex Wood
  34. Kris Medlen
  35. Jeff Samardzija
  36. Mike Minor
  37. Jake Peavy
  38. Kevin Gausman
  39. Tyson Ross
  40. Patrick Corbin
  41. Lance Lynn
  42. Francisco Liriano
  43. Andrew Cashner
  44. Ricky Nolasco
  45. CC Sabathia
  46. Hiroki Kuroda
  47. Tim Lincecum
  48. Tim Hudson
  49. Jered Weaver
  50. Shelby Miller
  51. Clay Buchholz
  52. Tony Cingrani
  53. Matt Garza
  54. John Lackey
  55. Ubaldo Jimenez
  56. Justin Masterson
  57. Julio Teheran
  58. R.A. Dickey
  59. A.J. Griffin
  60. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  61. Dan Haren
  62. Johnny Cueto
  63. C.J. Wilson
  64. Ian Kennedy
  65. Chris Archer
  66. Kyle Lohse
  67. Scott Kazmir
  68. Carlos Martinez
  69. Jon Lester
  70. Ervin Santana
  71. Jose Quintana
  72. Derek Holland
  73. Garrett Richards
  74. Dan Straily
  75. Tyler Skaggs

Early SP rankings for 2014

I wouldn’t say pitching is deep, but I’m surprised by the pitchers who didn’t make my top 60.

Note: I have deemed players highlighted in pink undervalued and worthy of re-rank. Do not be alarmed just yet by what you may perceive to be a low ranking.

2014 STARTING PITCHERS

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Max Scherzer
  4. Yu Darvish
  5. Felix Hernandez
  6. Cliff Lee
  7. Stephen Strasburg
  8. Jose Fernandez
  9. Cole Hamels
  10. Justin Verlander
  11. Anibal Sanchez
  12. Chris Sale
  13. Mat Latos
  14. Madison Bumgarner
  15. Alex Cobb
  16. Homer Bailey
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Zack Greinke
  19. David Price
  20. James Shields
  21. Jordan Zimmermann
  22. Michael Wacha
  23. Danny Salazar
  24. Jered Weaver
  25. A.J. Burnett *contingent on if he retires
  26. Kris Medlen
  27. Mike Minor
  28. Jake Peavy
  29. Corey Kluber
  30. Lance Lynn
  31. Matt Cain
  32. Hisashi Iwakuma
  33. CC Sabathia
  34. Gio Gonzalez
  35. Doug Fister
  36. Patrick Corbin
  37. Francisco Liriano
  38. Sonny Gray
  39. Ricky Nolasco
  40. Hiroki Kuroda
  41. Tim Hudson
  42. Marco Estrada
  43. Shelby Miller
  44. Trevor Rosenthal
  45. Tony Cingrani
  46. A.J. Griffin
  47. Brandon Beachy
  48. Tim Lincecum
  49. Clay Buchholz
  50. Ubaldo Jimenez
  51. Alex Wood
  52. Julio Teheran
  53. Tyson Ross
  54. Hyun-jin Ryu
  55. Matt Garza
  56. Andrew Cashner
  57. Johnny Cueto
  58. C.J. Wilson
  59. John Lackey
  60. Justin Masterson
  61. R.A. Dickey
  62. Kevin Gausman
  63. Jon Lester
  64. Dan Haren
  65. Ervin Santana
  66. Derek Holland
  67. Chris Archer
  68. Jeff Samardzija
  69. Bartolo Colon
  70. Ivan Nova
  71. Matt Moore
  72. Ian Kennedy
  73. Dan Straily
  74. Rick Porcello
  75. Jarrod Parker
  76. Carlos Martinez
  77. Jeremy Hellickson
  78. Kyle Lohse
  79. Scott Kazmir
  80. Jason Vargas
  81. Tommy Milone
  82. Wade Miley
  83. Dillon Gee
  84. Brandon Workman
  85. Chris Tillman
  86. Zack Wheeler
  87. Yovani Gallardo
  88. Miguel Gonzalez
  89. Jose Quintana
  90. Garrett Richards
  91. Robbie Erlin
  92. Felix Doubront
  93. Jhoulys Chacin
  94. Jonathon Niese
  95. Chris Capuano
  96. Nick Tepesch
  97. Alexi Ogando
  98. Bronson Arroyo
  99. Travis Wood
  100. Trevor Cahill
  101. Tyler Skaggs
  102. Randall Delgado
  103. Martin Perez
  104. Mike Leake
  105. Carlos Villanueva
  106. Todd Redmond
  107. Brandon Maurer
  108. Tyler Lyons
  109. Ryan Vogelsong
  110. Zach McAllister
  111. Wily Peralta
  112. Brett Oberholtzer
  113. Erik Johnson
  114. Jorge De La Rosa
  115. Paul Maholm
  116. Hector Santiago
  117. Burch Smith
  118. Jeff Locke
  119. Joe Kelly
  120. Jason Hammel
  121. Jake Odorizzi
  122. Danny Hultzen
  123. Anthony Ranaudo
  124. Archie Bradley
  125. Rafael Montero
  126. James Paxton
  127. Taijuan Walker
  128. Yordano Ventura