Jon Lester Is Showing Red Sox Everything They Stand to Lose If He Leaves

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Jon Lester Is Showing Red Sox Everything They Stand to Lose If He Leaves
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

There's nothing like a good contract narrative, and here's a toast to how Jon Lester's is suddenly a heck of a lot more interesting now than it was before.

There just wasn't that much drama there for a while. The word in January was that Lester was willing to take a hometown discount to stay with the Boston Red Sox rather than aim for free agency at season's end. Toward the end of spring training, Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe reported that the two sides were indeed close to a deal. Yawn.

Next thing you knew, boom. Drama. 

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported last week that Lester had rejected Boston's latest proposal, a low-ball offer of four years and between $70-80 million, and that he had cut off negotiations for the rest of the year. Like that, what was boring had become intriguing, for Lester leaving the Red Sox had gone from a mere possibility to something more like a probability.

And after Lester's latest start, it's maybe never been more apparent how much the Red Sox would be losing if they do indeed cut ties with their ace lefty.

Lester turned in yet another excellent outing on Thursday night at U.S. Cellular Field in Boston's 3-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox. He took a perfect game into the sixth before ultimately walking off the mound having allowed one run on seven hits in eight innings. He struck out nine and walked none. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

So tell us, David Ross. Just how good was Lester on Thursday night?

Via Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald:

A weird compliment as far as compliments go. But since it's a compliment all the same, let's be content to nod our heads at it and get on with the good stuff.

And there's plenty of that to talk about regarding Lester's hot start to 2014, as he currently finds himself among the cream of the crop among qualified American League starters.

Via FanGraphs:

Jon Lester Through Four Starts
Split IP K/BB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Lester 29.0 7.25 2.17 2.36 2.71 0.9
AL Rank 1 7 20 10 7 3

FanGraphs

Most of this should be familiar, but I can explain FIP and xFIP if you're hazy on what they are.

That's Fielding Independent Pitching and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, and their job is to estimate what a pitcher's ERA should be by focusing only on the four things within his control: walks, strikeouts, hit-by-pitches and home runs. The difference between the two is that xFIP replaces a pitcher's home run total with an estimate for how many home runs should be on his record.

What these two stats tell us is that Lester's 2.17 ERA in the early goings isn't too fluky, and his ranks in both categories tell you the same can't be said about other top ERA merchants in the American League thus far. So far, Lester's been truly elite.

Which really isn't the biggest surprise, because Lester's been doing the whole elite pitcher thing for more than just four starts. He was among baseball's best between 2008 and 2011, and he was dominant down the stretch and in October last year.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

In his last 13 starts of the  2013 regular season, Lester posted a 2.57 ERA and 2.77 FIP. His FIP dipped to a modest 3.17 in his five postseason starts...But his ERA checked in at 1.56. He was especially excellent in his two World Series starts, allowing just one run in 15.1 innings with 15 strikeouts and one walk.

So rather than a four-start stretch of excellence, what Lester is riding is more of a 22-start stretch of excellence. That's a decent-sized sample size, as it were.

Decent enough, even, to feel safe enough in saying that Lester's over the year-and-a-half "meh" spell he endured in 2012 and 2013. He's an ace again.

Which is a hard thing to replace if you lose one. The Red Sox could conceivably fill Lester's spot in the rotation by dipping into their deep bag of talented pitching prospects if he does happen to walk, but counting on one of the young guns to replace the numbers the Red Sox would be losing in the short term would be foolery. This is a good time for young pitchers, but they can't all be Jose Fernandez.

And though the numbers are the main thing—it's my duty as a geek to make that point clear—you can lose more than just numbers when you lose an ace. You can also lose the benefits that come with those numbers.

For example, you can lose a stopper. That's what Lester was for the Red Sox when took the mound at Yankee Stadium on April 11, hurling 6.2 innings of two-run ball to help keep Boston from what could have been its sixth loss in eight games. 

Another thing you stand to lose is a dragon slayer. Lester outlasted CC Sabathia, who pitched a lot better than the four runs on his line score indicated, at Yankee Stadium. On Thursday night, he was able to overshadow Chris Sale despite his seven-inning, 10-strikeout performance.

In beating Sale, I would also say that Lester flashed his ability to win the big games, but...Nah. April starts aren't big starts for anyone, but they're especially small for guys who have pitched well in two World Series.

So a guy who can put up ace-like numbers and deliver all the benefits that come with them. That's what the Red Sox stand to lose if Lester walks as a free agent after the season's over.

And it looks like they could be reminded of it every time he takes the hill the rest of the way.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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