Monday, March 9, 2009

Keeping Lester healthy a must

Yankee fans might not like this. Then again, they might.

In the wake of the news that the Red Sox are on the verge of inking young star Jon Lester to a five-year, $30 million contract, one immediately starts to wonder what it is the Red Sox are going to get from the lefthander over the next five years.

It's not easy to compare career tracks this early, particularly for a guy who really has just one uninterrupted season under his belt. But if you look at the players whose numbers most closely matched Lester's when they were 24 years old, you'll find an interesting list: Tim Hudson (a star), Jeff D'Amico (a quick flameout after one good season), Shawn Estes (likewise, though he did see a couple of resurrections) and Donovan Osborne (who I believe sang that "Sunshine Superman" song).

Oh, and then there's Andy Pettitte.

Pettitte threw in 31 games (and made 26 starts) in his first season, going 12-9 with a 4.17 ERA. He struck out 114 and walked 63. Opponents hit .272 off him. His ERA+ (adjusted for park effect and league average) was 111.

Lester, in his first two seasons, both cancer-affected, threw in 27 games (and made 26 starts), going 11-2 with a 4.68 ERA. He struck out 110 and walked 74. Opponents hit .260 off him. His ERA+ was 101.

Both, at this point in their careers, were about to turn 24 years old.

Pettitte, pitching for the eventual World Series champion Yankees in 1996, went 21-8 with a 3.87 ERA in 221 innings pitched. He struck out 162 and walked 72. His ERA+ was 129.

Lester, pitching for the American League runner-up Red Sox in 2008, went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 210 1/3 innings pitched. He struck out 152 and walked 66. His ERA+ was 144.

Pettitte went on to win at least 14 games and throw at least 190 innings with an ERA+ above 100 in each of the next five years. His ERA fluctuated between 2.88 and 4.70 in that span, but he was a reliable top-of-the-rotation lefty for three more World Series championship teams.

If the Red Sox can get that from Lester for a $30 million commitment, they'll be more than thrilled.

But just because Pettitte did it, that doesn't guarantee Lester will do it. In fact, there's one critical difference between them: Pettitte was listed at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds even back in 1996.
Lester is listed at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds.

Check out the other lefties on Lester's comparables:

* Shawn Estes: 6-foot-2, 185 pounds
-- Went 19-5 in 201 innings pitched at age 24 but missed two months the next season with a shoulder strain, going 7-12 in the process. Won 15 games on two other occasions but never again had an ERA under 4.00.
* Kirk Rueter: 6-foot-3, 195 pounds
-- Brought along slowly until age 26 and won at least 10 games in seven straight seasons from 1997-2003. Pitched over 200 innings just once in his career.
* Donovan Osborne: 6-foot-2, 210 pounds
-- Won 10 games at age 24 and 13 games at age 27 before all but washing out thanks to a series of shoulder injuries.
* Noah Lowry: 6-foot-2, 190 pounds
-- Won 13 games with a 3.78 ERA in 204 2/3 innings pitched at age 24 but suffered an oblique strain in the second inning of his first start the next season. Spent a month on the disabled list and went 7-10 with a 4.74 ERA upon his return. Missed the entire 2008 season while undergoing two arm surgeries. A longshot to make the Giants' rotation this spring.

(And then there's the curious case of Ervin Santana. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound righty threw 204 innings in 2006, flopped and was sent down to Triple-A in 2007, threw 219 innings in 2008 and now will start 2009 on the disabled list -- which makes this even more relevant.)

No one doubts the enormous potential within Lester's left arm. If the Red Sox are to make a $30 million investment in him, though, they'll have to be extraordinarily careful. (That means not tolerating any of this "I don't worry about it" stuff.)

Lefthanded ace-types are hard to come by, but they can change the entire fortunes of a baseball team. The Yankees can testify to that. But while Pettitte was a Roger Clemens-type horse, his body type making him far more resistant to injury, Lester isn't blessed with that type of body.

Counting the playoffs, Pettitte threw at least 230 innings five times in six seasons between 1996 and 2001. Counting the playoffs, Lester threw 237 innings last season. If the Red Sox are going to get their money's worth from their $30 million investment, that can't happen again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The height and weight you listed of Lester are outdated. Lester is about 6'4, 233 lbs. these days.