Could Jon Lester regress?

One of the better stories of the 2008 season was the maturation of Jon Lester into a pitcher very much to be reckoned with.

There are three pressing questions when attempting to evaluate Lester's chances for 2009: control, workload and xFIP.

Fire Brand takes a look at each component and attempts to answer the question.

One of the better stories of the 2008 season was the maturation of Jon Lester into a pitcher very much to be reckoned with.

Fire Brand sponsors his Baseball Reference page with this quote: “He beat cancer. He beat the Rox for the World Series. He threw a no-hitter. What’s next… Hall of Fame?”

There are three pressing questions when attempting to evaluate Lester’s chances for 2009: control, workload and xFIP.

CONTROL

In 2008 at the age of 24, Lester threw 210.1 innings and won 16 games to go along with six losses. He checked in at a 3.21 ERA with a 1.27 WHIP, making significant strides towards arresting his control issues, which had been the only thing holding him back.

Take a look at how much he improved his control:


Year BB/9 K/BB
2006 4.76 1.40
2007 4.43 1.61
2008 2.82 2.30

That’s a significant increase in control, especially considering he didn’t throw the cutter predominantly until 2007. (Threw it 2 percent of the time in 2006, 22 percent of the time in 2008 and 2008.)

Only time will tell if Lester’s control will hold up. There’s currently no simple way to identify if a player’s control is legitimate or not. This will be one of the major components of Lester’s arsenal to watch in the early going.

WORKLOAD

Lester pitched 26.2 innings in the postseason for a sum of 237 total innings in 2008, a 45 percent jump from 2007 when he pitched a cumulative 163 innings.

The Verducci Effect calls for a significant risk of injury for young pitchers who experience of jump of 30 or more innings in their previous two seasons. Considering Lester jumped 74 innings, this makes him a prime candidate for injury.

How worried should we be? A 45 percent jump in innings is rather drastic, but Lester may be the exception to the norm. Remember, Lester was still recovering from his bout with cancer and underwent a strong off-season regimen to prepare him for the season. The further he got away from chemotherapy, the stronger he seemed to become.

A lot of subjective analysis for his workload here, so we’ll have to wait and see. I will say this, and this should come as no surprise: The Red Sox are aggressive about making sure each pitcher does not get hurt and schedules “breaks” for them as the season goes — whether by skipping a start or putting them on the disabled list. With Clay Buchholz, Charlie Zink and Michael Bowden in Pawtucket, I’m not concerned.

xFIP

Lester’s xFIP is not as impressed with Lester’s 2008 than most of us were. First, an explanation of FIP and xFIP:

Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of all those things for which
a pitcher is specifically responsible. The formula is
(HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually
around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP
helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well
his fielders fielded. FIP was invented by Tangotiger.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. This is an experimental stat that adjusts FIP
and “normalizes” the home run component. Research has shown that home
runs allowed are pretty much a function of flyballs allowed and home
park, so xFIP is based on the average number of home runs allowed per
outfield fly. Theoretically, this should be a better predicter of a
pitcher’s future ERA.

In layman’s terms, xFIP takes all the statistics a pitcher is primarily responsible for and adjusts it for league average. Lester’s ERA and xFIP over the years:


Year ERA xFIP
2006 4.76 5.35
2007 4.57 5.25
2008 3.21 4.19
Okay, so his xFIP isn’t as exciting as his ERA. Two points, though:
  • xFIP does like Lester’s progression from 2007 to 2008, as it decreases over a full point. This is significant.
  • This just underscores how important defense is to a pitcher. The difference between ERA and xFIP largely rests on the defense.

Considering the Red Sox have been among the league’s best defensive teams since they put an added focus on defense in 2006, it comes as no surprise that Lester’s ERA is lower — signifncantly lower — than his xFIP. Of course, it’s not just the defense that comprises the difference, but it is a large part.

Take Carlos Silva into account. With a fine defense behind him in the 2007 Minnesota Twins, he posted a 4.19 ERA and 4.67 xFIP. In Seattle in 2008, we all know how atrocious he was: a 6.46 ERA. Ah, but his xFIP? 4.74. Significant difference, as it is widely held that the Mariners hold one of the worst defenses in baseball, especially in the infield where Silva makes his living.

So, will Jon Lester regress? It’s hard to say, but it’s definitely possible. His workload is a screaming red light while we don’t know what to make of his improved control.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Categories: Carlos Silva Jon Lester

Born on the 37th anniversary of the the day Babe Ruth died (1985) which later became the day Jimy Williams was fired in 2001 (a monumental event at the time), Evan was too young to experience the pain 1986 brought, but a deep wound was sowed in 2003. Since then, Fire Brand has become a blog that Red Sox “club officials read,” as per Peter Gammons. Evan enjoys working out, writing, reading, quality television, science fiction and history and being newly married. He is a professional baseball journalist as well as president of a state non-profit and member of the Board of Directors for a national profit. (Twitter.)

17 Responses to “Could Jon Lester regress?” Subscribe

  1. South Shore Sox January 26, 2009 at 7:54 AM #

    Count me as beyond concerned that Lester will suffer a major injury in 2009.
    Like you mentioned above, the Verducci effect seems to be real.
    That's why I'm elated that the team went out and got great depth, and now could go as many as nine of ten deep in the starting rotation.
    With Lester's, Matsuzaka and Beckett's concerns plus Wakefield's age, its not a matter of if the Sox lose a starting pitcher for a stretch of time- but when. http://www.southshoresox.com

  2. Gerry January 26, 2009 at 10:05 AM #

    You are probably correct about the "when" of this rotation. I counted 12 SP in 2008. Among them were Buchholz, Bowden, Masterson, Zinc, Hansack who should be better in 2009 with MLB experience so, like Evan, am not overly concerned. Also, if Schill suits up for the second half, it will be in Red Sox uniform, on a good deal, as he owes us a year. That would give us 12 solid to exceptional SP without looking elsewhere, enough for 7 to be on the DL at a given time; the very definition of depth.
    This year's Rotation and Bullpen are both effected by the Verducci Theory. Jon Lester isn't the only one with dramatic increase in innings. Look at the Bullpen.
    Manny Delcarment went from 44 to 74IP;
    Ramon Ramirez, coming off injury in 2007, went from 17 to 72, Papelbon from 58 to 69,
    Javier Lopez from 41 to 59.
    Fortunately, with Hansack, Jones, Littleton, Bard, Gronk, and others the Pen is almost as deep as the Rotation.
    Could the logic of the Verducci theory be reversed? Could so many arms coming off injury shortened seasons actually do better in 2009? Anomalies abound, even while seeing the validity (Penny, Wake, Littleton) of and exceptions (Beckett, Smoltz, Saito) to the Theory.
    The following IP are 2006 – 2007 – 2008:
    Beckett 205-201-174,
    Matsuzaka ??? -205 – 168,
    Penny 189-208-94,
    Smoltz 232-206-28,
    Wake 140-189-181
    Littleton 36-48-18,
    Saito 78-64-47
    Okajima ???-69 -62
    Among RP, Ramon Ramirez' excellent rookie year 68ip/3.6era, was followed in 2007 by major injury and 17ip/8.31era, followed by a huge season away from Coors in '08 of 72ip/2.64era. Such recoveries seem to be the norm, not the exception. But what about the NEXT year? What can we expect from Ramon in 2009?
    Will the Verducci Theory impact his 2009, or does the rest and intense rehab during and post injury offset or negate the theory? Can we expect RRammi-like monster years from Beckett, Penny, Smoltz, Wake, Saito, Littleton, etc. coming off injury?
    IMO, Jon Lester began 2008 still recovering from his whole body injury, still shedding chemo side effects, still gaining strength. In 2006 and 2007 he also pitched injured, as his cancer was diagnosed and treated. By mid-2008 we saw him essentiallly finishing his rookie season in terms of IP. He didn't tire until the very end. Assuming he rested Oct-Feb, while keeping himself in shape, and isn't overused in 2009, his unique circumstances may make him the exception to the Verducci rule.

  3. Tessie's Dad January 26, 2009 at 11:10 AM #

    If Lester does regress significantly, Beckett might have a legitimate claim to being called "Ace."
    I don't expect to see Lester regress much at all, if any, however. Countering the Verducci Effect is the Armstrong Principle, in which cancer survivors develop physical and mental gifts that allow them to overcome fatigue to perform at almost super-human levels.

  4. Gerry January 26, 2009 at 12:11 PM #

    Excellent point Tessie's Dad. I work in a cancer treatment center. Cancer is an immune system disease that can take your life. Most cancer patients deal with serious issues of anxiety and consequent depression as they face their mortality and pain. 90% of cancer patients experience fatigue. All cancer patients face issues of fairness and spirituality as they endure their personal hell. Like so many personal trials, you either emerge stronger, or you don't.
    In addition to increasingly successful medical protocols, the antidote to a weakened immune system, to anxiety, to depression, to fatigue, to emotional and spiritual crises, for cancer patients, is exercise and rehab. In order to regain control over his body, mind, emotions and spirit, someone like Jon Lester (and Lance Armstrong or Mike Lowell) pass through intense life changing, life enhancing regimens relating to exercise, diet, emotional and spiritual renewal. It's literally a matter of life and death, and lasts for years. At the end of this journey, a person will either be a self-contained powerhouse, or not.
    It is obvious that Lester, Lowell, Armstrong experienced profound transformation through their ordeals, and the results are self evident in their physical, mental and emotional toughness, as shown by their remarkable careers. Good call, TD.

  5. Anonymous January 26, 2009 at 4:17 PM #

    Lester's performance and his control early on may not necessarily be a great indicator of how he will pitch the rest of the season, because, up to this point, in his MiL and ML career, Lester has always been a slow starter. There seems to be a pattern of him having a poor first month or so until he hits his groove. I recall that this has been true every year since '04. So let's not get too concerned if he seems shaky in the early going.

  6. Evan January 26, 2009 at 5:28 PM #

    Surprised this hasn't gotten more comments or recommendations. Slow time for Sox fans?

  7. Tim Daloisio January 26, 2009 at 5:43 PM #

    I think it's because, as was the case with Youk, Sox fans feel relatively confident about Lester.
    I think if you had come out and said that he was likely to regress, you would have illicited a reaction. But in this case, I think most will agree that he's shown great progression and any potential injury risk should be mitigated by the diligence the Red Sox pay to pitcher development as an organization.

  8. Anonymous January 26, 2009 at 5:47 PM #


    If Lester does regress significantly, Beckett might have a legitimate claim to being called "Ace."

    Beckett was the same, if not better, pitcher in 2008 than he was in 2007. Only difference was in luck: BABIP, Strand Rate, HR/fb. Anyone who doesn't think that Beckett is the ace is absolutely crazy.
    Lester didn't have a great 2008 season… he just had a super great 2nd half.
    That means two things. We know that he has the skill to be the best pitcher in baseball, and as the opening post states, we know that there could be some normalizing of his stats.
    Should be interesting to watch his 2009 GB rate, K% and K/BB. If they can come near the 2nd half growth from last year, watch out.

  9. RedSoxStats.com January 26, 2009 at 5:48 PM #


    If Lester does regress significantly, Beckett might have a legitimate claim to being called "Ace."

    Beckett was the same, if not better, pitcher in 2008 than he was in 2007. Only difference was in luck: BABIP, Strand Rate, HR/fb. Anyone who doesn't think that Beckett is the ace is absolutely crazy.
    Lester didn't have a great 2008 season… he just had a super great 2nd half.
    That means two things. We know that he has the skill to be the best pitcher in baseball, and as the opening post states, we know that there could be some normalizing of his stats.
    Should be interesting to watch his 2009 GB rate, K% and K/BB. If they can come near the 2nd half growth from last year, watch out.

  10. Tessie's Dad January 26, 2009 at 8:35 PM #

    Uh-huh. How many no-hitters did Beckett throw last year?
    Seriously: they're both great pitchers, but to my "absolutely crazy" eyes, Lester outshone Beckett all year long.

  11. Ventulus Rex January 26, 2009 at 9:41 PM #

    I love how you're ignoring the 42 more innings Beckett threw in 2007 over 2008 and the vast differences in post-season performance.

  12. Bob January 26, 2009 at 9:46 PM #

    could be a regression, but I'm honestly not that worried. Lester, Pedey, and Paps are the guys I have the utmost faith and confidence in.

  13. redsoxstats.com January 27, 2009 at 2:31 AM #

    I said Beckett was a better pitcher, I could care less what the outcomes of W/L, ERA and balls in play were.
    If you thought "Lester outshone Beckett all year long" fine, good for you. But in the first half of the year who was better?
    1.9 BB/9, 8.6 K/9, 4.5 K/BB, 3.56 FIP
    3.2 BB/9, 5.9 K/9, 1.9 K/BB, 3.88 FIP
    About the innings, all the more reason that Beckett was amazing in 2008. He did it with worse luck and while thinking he needed Tommy John surgery.
    Post-season performance? Really? Ok, Beckett had a bad oblique injury and pitched one disaster and threw five innings each in the other two starts. He left one game tied and won the other, Game 6 ALCS.

  14. Tim Daloisio January 27, 2009 at 4:21 AM #

    I think RedSoxStats.com's point is valid in so far as Beckett's season last season was not as "off the cliff" as people seem to recall. For all his "troubles" his peripheral stats were all on par with the year prior. Luck and injury certainly impacted Beckett negatively in 2008.
    I expect a big year from Beckett this season.
    As for who had the better season in 2008 overall? I think you would have to give the edge to Lester. Even with that, I'll still give Beckett the #1 nod heading into 2009.

  15. Evan January 27, 2009 at 5:49 AM #

    I completely agree with RedSoxStats.com and also Tim. Beckett had a WILDLY underrated and unlucky year last year.
    Watch out, baseball. Beckett's coming.

  16. Tessie's Dad January 27, 2009 at 7:31 AM #

    I know I'm not going to win this argument, but I'm just a big Lester fan because of his makeup, and I will not stop singing his praises until photographs surface of him in bed with A-Rod and Madonna.
    Yes, Beckett's the Ace, and Lester's 2008 season isn't enough to unseat him, but I believe Lester will eventually be the Sox' Ace. This season, if trends continue, will settle the issue.
    Not that I think it's important, though. The identity of the "Ace" means nothing in the W/L columns. All you can ask of a pitcher is that (as the cliche goes) he gives his team a chance to win. Both Lester and Beckett do that, and do it with regularity.
    I'd love to see – we all would, I'm sure – Beckett and Lester AND Matsuzaka in an all-out competition to be the Ace. Each has the potential.

  17. Gerry January 27, 2009 at 9:20 PM #

    And the glory of this 2009 season (yes, I used the word glory, as in glorious) is that Smoltz, Penny, Buchholz and maybe Masterson may also be in that "all out competition to be the Ace. Each has the potential". Did I mention Wake or Bowden? And all nine will be driven this year more than at any time in their careers. They need to excell, and they can taste that ring. Can a team have 5 Aces if each pitches like one? 1990's Braves anyone?