Friday, December 7, 2007

Jon Lester's Ceiling

I have a friend, who for the life of him couldn't understand they the Minnesota Twins would be interested in a deal centered around Jon Lester. I tried to explain to him the potential of Jon Lester. There's no arguing about Lester's stuff - it's great. When Lester first came up to the Double-A level in 2005, he posted an ERA of 2.61 while striking out 163 batters over 148.1 innings of work.

Going into that season of 2005, Baseball America ranked Lester as the Red Sox fourth best prospect, one spot behind Jonathan Papelbon. After the 2005 season, Baseball America ranked Lester as the Red Sox second best prospect, behind only Andy Marte. Marte was only a member of the Red Sox for a small period of time, and was later dealt to the Indians for Coco Crisp. So for all intensive purposes, Lester was ranked as the organization's best prospect, at any position.

In 2006, Lester was promoted to Triple-A where he again was very successful. In just over 46 innings, Lester had an ERA of 2.70, while striking out 43 hitters. On the surface, Lester looked poised to make the leap to the majors. And Lester did on June 10th. Lester even went on to win his first five decisions, and five of his first seven starts. Over those starts, his ERA as low as 2.38. ESPN compared the young lefty to other young pitchers Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano. Lester's success, however, masked a major issue in his development.

Starting with Lester's promotion to Triple-A in 2006, his control began to suffer greatly. His walk rate jumped to 4.82 walks every nine innings of work. When he stopped hitting his spots, the typically precise pitcher saw his hit rate, home run rate and WHIP rise as his strikeout rate took a slight dip.

Lester's poor control is what now sets him apart from Type A pitching prospects such as Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes. This can be demonstrated by a quick comparison of their walk rates at the Double-A level. I chose the Double-A level because it's the only level at which any of these pitchers have thrown at least 85 innings.

In 2005, Lester walked a batter every 2.6 innings of work at the Double-A level. At the same level, in 2006, Hughes walked a batter every 3.63 innings of work. This year at the Double-A level, Clay Buchholz walked a batter every 3.95 innings of work. Over just 100 innings of work, that's a difference of 13 free passes between Lester and Buchholz, or difference in .13 in WHIP.

Exactly what caused Lester's loss of control is debatable. And it's not a matter to be taken lightly. The cause of his control issues could have a lot to do with his future level of success or failure. Some have argued that Lester's cancer may have played a role. Lester himself admits that his 2006 performance was affected by his cancer at some point in the season, although he doesn't say when. It was clear that by the time he came to the Red Sox in June of 2006, his velocity was down three or four miles per hour from where it typically was.

No one but Lester can know how much his illness affected his performance. Even if he was in perfect health, jumps in his walk rates aren't surprising for someone who had less than 50 innings of experience above the Double-A level, before going to the majors. In fact, a rise in walk rates is typical of most pitchers when they are promoted a level. These spikes in walk rates, however, are usually temporary. Some pitchers take longer than others to then get their walk rates down to normal levels. Some pitchers never reduced their elevated walk rates.

Whether Lester will be able to get his walk rate down in 2008 has yet to be seen. Lester now has a total of 118.1 innings of experience at the Triple-A level and 144.1 innings of experience at the major league level. Compared to his first major league stint, Lester now has over 200 more innings of experience above the Double-A level. Still, he wasn't completely healthy for much of that time.

One person who thinks Lester still has the potential to be a great starter is pitching coach John Farrell. Farrell has told the Red Sox management that he thinks Lester could win anywhere from 15-18 games once he's fully developed. In my opinion, Lester has the raw ability to do so. Last year, Lester kept his major league ERA down to 4.57, even while he walked nearly a better every other inning.

Without a significant improvement in control, however, Lester will never win 18 games. Throughout his minor league career, Lester averaged 3.78 walked per nine innings of work. When he keeps his walk rate below four walks every nine innings, he's been successful. His walk rate was below 4 BB/9 IP when he posted a 2.61 ERA at Double-A in 2005 and when he posted a 3.89 ERA at Triple-A last year. So a walk rate below 4 BB/ 9 IP is what I'm going to look for next year.

Who knows, perhaps he could live up to his potential next year. I think it will probably take him another half a year at least before he begins to realize his ability at the major league level. It could take him as long as two more years. Lester is only 23 years of age, and was hurt by being rushed to the majors, and enduring a year of poor health.

He's already shown he has heart, coming back from cancer to win the deciding game of the World Series. Now it's just a matter of putting the ball where he wants it to be. Not that that's an easy task. Major leaguers have long lived or died by their ability to do it. As they say, it's a game of inches.


Rebecca said...

Hi, I saw your link on the LoHud Yanks blog so I clicked...

...I'm a die-hard Yankee fan, but I have tremendous respect for Lester for beating cancer...watching a friend go through a similar battle, I know it's not easy.

I think that in part, Lester IS underrated, especially when compared to the other kids you've got coming up through your system.

However, when people are talking about a Santana trade, they're talking about Phil Hughes--who nearly pitched a no-hitter or Ian Kennedy--who one-hit Toronto for seven innings in his second ML start or Clay Buchholz, and I don't need to tell you what he did.

Lester might have a higher ceiling, but we haven't seen it yet.

Thus, the debate.

Hope I helped from Yankee territory =)

Ethan Michaels said...

Thanks for taking the time to read the article. I fully agree that Jon Lester doesn't deserve to be talked about in the same territory as Phil Hughes, or maybe even Ian Kennedy. I think Lester has a lot more development to do than those guys and I credit the Yankees minor league system for raising such composed pitchers with great control.

I'm not sure if Lester's ceiling even compares to that of a Phil Hughes or Clay Buchholz. The best strikeout rate that Lester's ever had was 9.89 stikeouts per 9 innings of work. Compared to the other guys, that's nothing. At that same level, Hughes struck out 10.71 batters per 9 innings and Buchholz struck out 12.05 per 9.

I can see why Lester is a desirable young pitcher though. He once was a top rated prospects, he's got great stuff, he's still only 23 and he's the ever valuable lefty.

Thanks again for visiting!

Michael Leggett said...

As a Fan of The Red Sox here in Queens, I knew that he wasn't quite up to snuff until Game 4 of the '07 WS, yet I felt that he had it in him, as I viewed him in '06,until The Lymphoma Diagnosis:

I feel that his best days are yet to come;

Yet as Trade Bait for Johann Santana, who did lose 13 Games this Year, I wouldn't let Lester Go, for a possibly declining quality.

james said...

I agree with you that Lester has as much promise to be as good as anyone. Generally people in and outside of Baseball might view Joba and Buckholtz one the same level then Hughes Lester and Kennedy but really we don't know. One thing the media does is it can't comprehend that a team could have 2 ace type prospects so they down grade one Lester and Hughes and further downgrade someone like Kennedy. The Yankees until this Year had one good position prospect Tabata and he's top shelf quality. He did nothing wrong but Austin Jackson elevated himself to Tabata's top tier status so they downgraded Tabata because Jackson like Buckholtz is the shiny new thing. One of things people comparing Lester and Hughes do and in Hughes favor they'll say Hughes is younger. At their ages is their any thing more ridiculous. Point is when they are as talented as this group you hang on to them because when they pay off they pay off huge.

As far as Lester goes he's a lefty in Fenway with the stomach to pitch big games. I wouldn't have minded the Sox (who are more mindful of payroll then we are) from trading him for Santana and possibly spent themselves into a box.

This happened to my Yankees. Santana younger than some of the Big Name guys we brought in but when they go bad your stuck with them. Santana could take a spot be inconsistent and your left running around trying to patch the tire with Darrel May and Tim Redding and Lester is winning 15 to 20 every year. Or if you keep him and he doesn't pan out you try something else maybe as reliever. But Santana cashes a check that would throw your back out. He takes a space. Every time the Yankees made this kind a move it blew up in their face

So go ahead trade Lester. This Yankee fan won't mind.

Peter N said...

Great comment, Rebecca...I just visited your blog. I hope you can stop at mine. That goes for you too, Ethan. Have a wonderful weekend. And well said, Michael. I agree with you. The Sox, with three or so additions, look golden for 2008. Ethan, great blog. Exchange links???? Let me email is available by clicking on my profile, over at my place. Thanks.

Robert Rittner said...

Hello. I saw your link at the Rays of Light blog.

You make excellent points about Lester. I am among those who thought the Red Sox would get a steal if Lester were the pitcher in that deal, but am less certain of that now.

Looking at his career, I agree that those walks are a danger sign, and even though it is true that he may improve there, his minor league numbers are not stellar in that regard.

Also, his K rate is decent but nothing special. Is he a ground ball pitcher, because if not, an ordinary K rate and high BB rate with fly ball tendencies does not bode well.

James makes an excellent point about downgrading one player when another hot prospect comes along, but in Lester's case, no matter what the analysts said before, his recent performance requires a wait and see attitude. Whether it is due to the illness or not, he has not yet demonstrated either the control or the stamina to be a top of the rotation starter in the majors.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Hi, everybody.
I think the overall topic is one of philosophy; that is, trade away young prospects for "proven" talent, or keep the homegrown ones and watch them blossom.

As a Yankees fan, I would not mind seeing Johan Santana play in the Stadium,depending on a couple of variables: for one, the cost cannot be prohibitive, and two, it would be good if Santana provided the pitcher of 2005 and 2006, and not on the "slippery slope". I'm not worried about Santana [a fly-ball lefty] playing in the Fens.

For cost, I would not want to see Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain or Ian Kennedy go away, even for Santana. Ditto Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano. In Sox terms, that would equate to not sending away Lester, or Buchholz, or Ellsbury. I realise that my opinion is partially based on emotion and that the actual roster situation is business, and I am okay with that.

Thinking like a GM [I hope] for a minute, I would consider what Minnesota needs [Not what they WANT, because it looks like Bill Smith wants the moon AND the stars ;-)]. Replacement parts plus prospects, and salary control. They have holes in the lineup as it is currently constructed, and while Carl Pohlad is as rich as Croesus [plus getting revenue sharing assistance], he is a notorious cheapskate, ergo the need or salary-control.

What does Minny need? Well, a CF ready to roll. Another OF or 3B, depending on where Cuddyer plays. A shortstop [good prospect coming up at 2B], and two arms for the rotation. I am not going to address other possible needs [such as losing Nathan in relief or trading Morneau/1B or Mauer/C]

From a Yank standpoint, the deal could be:

CF - Brett Gardner. Speedy, covers ground, decent arm. Slap hitter, contact. Little power. Looked good in the AFL. [Think Ellsbury, but less polished, with less power potential] Not quite ready for the Stadium, but might be ready for the turf in Minny.

SS - Alberto Gonzales. Slick fielder, D is major-league ready. Hasn't shown much stick, but that could be helped along by [1] regular playing time, and [2] playing on turf a la Gardner above.

3B - [I would keep Cuddyer in the OF for this treatise] - Wilson Betemit. Decent glove, has shown star potential in limited starting opportunities [Atlanta, for Chipper Jones]. Switch hitter with pop from the left side [strikes out way to often batting righty].

SP [Prospect] - Alan Horne. RHP, mid 90's fastball, some control issues. Tick behind Phil Hughes. Good two and 4 seam fastballs. Make no bones about it, this guy could blossom into a star.

SP [Not so much] - Darrell Rasner. Average Joe, but gritty. Broke his finger, attempted to pitch through it before leaving the game. Probably won't be a star, but the type that could win ten or twelve games in the Stadium [or Fenway]. 8 wins in Minny?

I know I have strayed from the topic of Jon Lester's ceiling, Ethan, sorry about that. I guess my point is [getting back to philosophies] that the farm should be nurtured and cultivated. Keep the kids [and only when you have plenty, use as trading material]. My continuing prayers for Jon Lester's health.


Anonymous said...

You asked for feedback and left a link to this article on Lester on Not sure if you want comments on your potential as a writer or on the subject. If it's the former, then I'd suggest reading something other than the sports pages every so often because your grasp of English is barely Mendoza Line level.

For all "intensive" purposes?

The Omnipotent Q said...

I thought that was a nice article you wrote on Jon Lester, Ethan (and I'm not going to be an "English teacher" about it like the previous commenter). I love Lester but his walk ratio MUST come down. He nibbles way to much. I don't know if it's due to his cancer, but I hope the Sox hold on to him.

Thanks for visiting my site, and good luck with yours.

He showed a lot of heart and guts in 2007, especially in the World Series. I really want him to stay in Boston.

Nick N. said...

Good article Ethan. I'm higher on Lester than most around Minnesota, but I think there are too many questions surrounding him to make him the centerpiece of a Santana deal. I'd be fine with a deal that included both Lester and Ellsbury, but anything less than that is unsatisfying.

Ethan Michaels said...

I'm not a writer, I'm not pretending to be. I've never studied the subject at any level of my education. So, even if the comment wasn't from anonymous, I wouldn't take much offense.

Thank you everybody for visiting the site. Peter, I'd be glad to exchange links. I'll leave you a comment at your site to let you know.