Jon Lester vs. Cliff Lee: The Courtroom

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Jon Lester vs. Cliff Lee: The Courtroom
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All rise! Court is now in session.

In our fourth case, we have the Plaintiff, Mr. Jon Lester vs. the Defendant, Mr. Cliff Lee.

Mr. Lester claims that he is now deserving of being drafted ahead of the former Cy Young winner, which Mr. Lee’s defense will be contending.

Arguing on the behalf of Mr. Lester is Bryan Curley, and arguing on behalf of Mr. Lee is George Fitopoulos. Let’s get it on!

Opening Statements

Bryan says:

At only 26 years of age and with two dominant seasons already under his belt, Jon Lester is poised to become one of baseball’s preeminent aces. He has been the definition of strength and durability, making 65 starts in the last two seasons and performing better as the season has worn on.

In 2009, he was one of only 10 pitchers to strike out 200-plus batters and finished with a K/9 of 10.0, fourth best among all qualifying starters.

In short, Lester is one of the elite few starters who can combine high strikeout totals with a low WHIP. No offense to Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana, or Cole Hamels, but Lester just might be the best left-handed pitcher in baseball, and he’ll once again show why in 2010.

George says:

Normally, I am against the move to the American League when it comes to pitchers; Max Scherzer, Javier Vazquez, and Rich Harden are all players I predict to regress this season.

However, Cliff Lee’s move to the Mariners is a great move and I’ll tell you why.

Starting in 2008, Lee has been very good at inducing the groundball, and the Mariners have one of the better, if not the best, defensive infields in the Majors. Add in the fact that their outfield ranked first in defense last season, and you can feel comfortable that Lee has a lot of help behind him.

Also, he will be calling Safeco Field home, where home runs go to die (24th in park factors) and runs are hard to come by (21st in park factor). 

Lee strikes out enough guys to be a force in fantasy baseball (7.03 K/9 last year). He should allow even fewer home runs (he ranked 13th last year) and post an ERA in the low-3’s, which would make him a clear cut, top 10 starter.


Bryan says:

There are two major factors propelling Lester toward fantasy stardom: his development as a pitcher and Boston’s focus on defense.

I hate bringing it up because it is talked about every time Lester starts a big game, but don’t forget that the man is a cancer survivor.

After what he went through, it’s amazing that he has ascended as high as he has, as quickly as he has.

He’s still getting stronger and his pitches are still developing. To show this, let’s take a look at some of his pitching stats:

  • In 2009, his average fastball was 93.6 MPH, versus 92.1 MPH in 2008.
  • Lester’s cutter became his most devastating pitch, increasing in velocity to 89.0 MPH and resulting in 13.0 runs above average (a way of judging the quality of a pitch). For comparison, it was only 5.0 runs above average in 2008, and his 2009 value of 13.0 was good for sixth out of 35 starters that featured cutters and threw at least 100 IP.
  • Out of 123 pitchers with 100 IP, Lester was eighth in O-Contact percentage (51.6) and ninth in overall Contact percentage (75.6%).

In 2009, Boston committed the sixth fewest errors in baseball, but they ranked 27th in defensive efficiency.

While Boston didn’t make many errors, their error rate was one of the highest in the league by virtue of all the strikeouts their pitching staff racked up.

Now add in Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron.

Beltre replaces the oft-injured and regressing Mike Lowell, and Cameron allows the Red Sox to move Jacoby Ellsbury to left field, replacing the defensive liability Sox fans came to know as Jason Bay.

It’s clear that Jon Lester is rapidly becoming one of the best pitchers in the league and, from a fantasy standpoint, he has superseded Cliff Lee due to his much higher strikeout potential (+44 K in 2009).

George says:

Lester has one distinct advantage over Lee: strikeouts.

His K/9 jumped from 6.50 in 2008 to 9.96 in 2009, but the big question is whether or not he can sustain a K/9 around 10 for seasons to come.

Starting with his days in the minors, Lester has always struggled with his control and has never posted a BB/9 total lower than 2.82. His first-strike percentage of 54.8 ranked eighth worst in the majors last season. His company included the likes of Kyle Davies, Trevor Cahill and Tim Wakefield—yes, Lester’s first-strike percentage can be comparable to that of a knuckleballer.

On the other hand, Lee provides you with great control numbers, as he has averaged 1.52 BB/9 over the last two seasons and posted a first-strike percentage of 65.4 in 2009, fifth in the majors. He did all this while striking out a respectable 7.03 batters per nine.

Lee should also improve on his 1.24 WHIP, which is high considering his great control numbers. Last season, his BABIP allowed was a career-high .326, but the Mariners were the best in the majors by allowing a BABIP of just .280.


Closing Statements

Bryan says:

The defense will have you look at Lester’s first-strike percentage as a negative, but I view it as a positive.

He was able to post an ERA in the mid-3.00s despite starting off so poorly against most batters and having a BABIP of .314, a 14-point increase from 2008.

Lester’s development is evidenced by his decreasing FIP (fielding independent pitching) over the last two seasons from 3.64 in 2008 to 3.15 in 2009.

With nearly identical ADPs in early mock drafts, fantasy managers have had to frequently choose between Lester and Lee.

The two southpaws should post similar ERAs, WHIPs, and win totals, but Lee cannot keep pace with Lester’s strikeout potential.

Even if Lester cannot keep up the 10.0 K/9 pace he posted last season, he will be well above the totals that Lee will post. With such out-of-character peripherals and luck-related stats last season, it is likely that Lester’s 2010 ERA will resemble his 2009 FIP, while still posting elite strikeout totals.

Lester may not have a Cy Young Award to his credit, but if he continues to progress like he has over the last few seasons, that may just be a matter of time.

George says:

I will respectfully disagree with your notion that Lee and Lester will have similar WHIPs in 2010.

Lee will have, arguably, the league’s best defense behind him. A spacious, pitcher-friendly ballpark means he should have no problem bringing his WHIP back to his 2008 level of 1.11—something Lester will have a tough time doing thanks to his 2.83 walks per nine innings.

Over the last two seasons, Lee has been one of the best pitchers in the majors, as he has posted the sixth best ERA, issued the third fewest walks, and allowed the sixth fewest home runs—all numbers that should be improved with his move to Seattle.

It’s interesting how so many people are reluctant to accept the fact that Lee can hang with the elites, but I assure you that he’s legit because he has dominated for almost 250 innings now, and no one just flukes their way through two seasons the way Lee has.

What he lacks in strikeouts, he makes up for with great control. And with strikeouts being plentiful these days, you might be better served reinforcing your staff’s WHIP rather than focusing on strikeouts early on.


Cases already heard:

Cabrera v. Fielder
Upton v. McCutchen
Sandoval v. Youkilis


For more hard-hitting analysis, check out Baseball Professor .

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