If Jon Lester's World Series performance is any indication of what's in store for 2014, fantasy owners might want to jump on the 29-year-old left-hander's bandwagon before it tips over.
Lester breezed through the Cardinals' lineup in Game 5, allowing one run on four hits while striking out seven and walking one in 7 2/3 innings. The Red Sox won, 3-1, and take a 3-2 Series edge with Game 6 in Boston at 8:07 p.m. EST tonight. In five postseason starts, Lester is 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 20 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings, including two World Series wins.
Because St. Louis struggled against left-handers all season, I -- maybe not so out on a limb -- predicted two Lester wins and an MVP before the Series started. I also predicted a Red Sox Series championship in five games, but, despite my
best worst guess, I've fully enjoyed what already feels like an instant classic between the two best teams in baseball.
Lester, who turns 30 in January, had his fourth best season in 2013, according to FanGraphs WAR, and reached some pretty important marks along the way. Lester tossed a career-high 213 1/3 innings, recorded his lowest walk rate (7.4 percent) in his seven-year career, and lowered his HR/FB rate below 10 percent for the first time since 2010.
Overall, Lester finished 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 177 strikeouts. On the ESPN Player Rater, he finished 50th among starting pitchers, behind a group including Ricky Nolasco, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo and Kyle Lohse. It goes without saying, but that group doesn't inspire much confidence in Lester's 2013 performance.
Holding Lester back is a league-average 19.6-percent strikeout rate, up slightly from 19 percent in 2012, but still a ways off from 26.7 percent and 26.1 percent in 2009 and 2010, respectively, when the southpaw struck out a 225 batters in both seasons. He has since struck out 182, 166 and 177. Despite his lowest walk rate since 2009, Lester's WHIP checked in at 1.29, only a tad better than a career-1.30 WHIP. He's just not missing as many bats anymore (8.4-percent swinging strike rate), and he allowed 209 hits for the second consecutive season.
Helping Lester's case in 2014 -- in addition to a postseason to remember -- is a second half that included a 2.57 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and a strikeout rate above 20 percent. A big reason was a significant drop in home runs allowed. Lester allowed just four home runs in 87 2/3 innings after the All-Star break, compared to 15 in 125 2/3 innings in the first half. Looking closer, it certainly seems fluky, considering his fly ball rate was up six percentage points in the second half, in addition to a higher line drive rate.
As I was wrapping this post up, I stumbled across the following tweet on my timeline (h/t @faketeams), and it took me aback:
Rosenthal says Lester should expect somewhere between Greinke's 146 million and Kershaw's expected 210 million bucks in his next contract.— Dennis and Callahan (@DandCShow) October 30, 2013
While the money suggested by Ken Rosenthal surprised me, Lester has been good for 7.4 fWAR over the last two years, which is comparable to Zack Grienke (7.7), Hiroki Kuroda (7.5) C.C. Sabathia (7.3), Mat Latos (7.3) and Stephen Strasburg (7.3). I'd list Lester fourth in that group, with only Kuroda and Sabathia behind.
Lester's postseason has been fantastic, but don't let that cloud your better judgment on draft day. I quickly jotted down a list of pitchers I'd rather have than Lester in 2014, and there are 38 I like more. He just doesn't provide enough upside in the strikeout and WHIP categories, and you'll likely be chasing wins and a 3.75 ERA if you draft him on the heels of a lights-out postseason, and possibly, if my prediction holds, a World Series MVP.