Wednesday December 10th, 2014

Rumors are one thing. Expectations are another. Neither mean much in reality, though. The Cubs emerged from the fog of the rumor mill, answered expectations and turned themselves into a realistic playoff contender in 2015, and set themselves up for greater heights for years to come, by signing Jon Lester to a six-year, $155-million deal late on Tuesday night at the winter meetings in San Diego.

Jay Jaffe has a great take on what the Lester signing means for the Cubs as they complete the transition from rebuilder to contender under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. In this space, we'll look at Lester's fantasy prospects as he moves from the American League to the National League with arguably the best season of his career immediately in his rear-view mirror.

After consecutive good-but-not-great campaigns in 2012 and 2013, Lester posted career bests in ERA and FIP in his age-30 season. He went 16-11, threw a career-high 219 2/3 innings and compiled a 2.46 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 3.10 xFIP and 220 strikeouts, topping a whiff per inning for the first time since 2010. Add it all up and he earned 6.1 fWAR, his first six-win season since 2009. In the last three years, he had no better than 4.3 fWAR. It was good enough for him to finish fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting and earn him a megadeal to be the Cubs' ace as he plows into his 30s.

Whenever a pitcher makes a dramatic turnaround like this at age 30, we have to look to see whether there was a significant change in approach that drove his results and has staying power, or if the stars aligned for a career season. In Lester's case, there is far more evidence for the former.

As Lester went through his late 20s and seemed to settle into his latter part of his prime as a three-to-four-win pitcher, his performance against righties declined. In 2009 and 2010, the two best seasons of his career before 2014, righties combined to hit .235/.299/.350 and .216/.304/.316, respectively, off Lester. His xFIP against righties in 2009 was 3.30. In 2010, it fell to 3.17.

Everything appeared to change in the 2011 season. From 2011 through 2013, righties never slugged worse than .388 against Lester and slugged as high as .448. His xFIP against opposite-siders increased every year, beginning at 3.84 in 2011 and topping out at 4.11 in 2013. It's hard for any pitcher to reverse so sharp a trend, especially one heading into his 30s.

A funny thing happened last season, though. Lester continued to dominate lefthanded hitters, but he also got a whole lot better against righties. Lester ended up retiring 170 innings worth of righthanded batters in 2014, and they slashed just .227/.273/.344 against him. His 3.04 xFIP facing righties was better than either of his standout 2009 and 2010 seasons. This was not simply the baseball fates smiling on him for a six-month period, but was the result of real, verifiable change.

So what exactly did Lester do against righthanded hitters last year that he hadn't done in 2011 through 2013? He scrapped his changeup in favor of his cutter and curveball, and he pounded them inside.

In the three seasons before his resurgent 2014, Lester lived on and off the outer third of the plate against righties. That is, of course, a function of throwing so many changeups to righties. When he missed with those pitches, however, it got ugly for him. Below are two screenshots. The first shows Lester's pitch location tendencies against righties from 2011 through 2013. The second shows their resultant slugging percentages for each zone.

There's a whole lot of red and purple in there, and a section of deep red on the outer and middle third of the strike zone. If a pitcher misses his spot by being too near the zone with a changeup away, hitters typically make him pay. Lester learned that lesson for three straight years.

He finally did something about it in 2014. Last year, Lester threw his cutter 30.8 percent of the time and curveball 16.4 percent of the time. Those numbers increased slightly against righties. Conversely, he threw his changeup just 2.6 percent of the time, by far a career low. When you trade your change for cutters and curves, you're naturally going to throw inside more. In this case, we really don't care if the chicken or the egg came first. What we care about is the results. And they are pretty.

Here you can see just how frequently Lester pitched righties inside last season, and what a departure it was from his 2011 through 2013 self. You can also see that he missed his spot far less often, and that when he did, it was to a less dangerous part of the zone. When Cubs fans and fantasy owners project Lester giving them ace production for the first three or four years of his six-year deal, this is what should have them excited.

Your obvious rejoinder could be that Lester didn't make this change until last season, but that he had similar success against righthanders in 2009 and 2010. That is true, but Lester's average fastball was also sitting up near 94 mph those two seasons. It has declined steadily since and was just 91.8 mph last year. Lester has finally adapted to that by making a necessary change to his approach and repertoire. Those are the sort of adjustments that make his age-30 production sustainable.

Lester also gets the natural bump of moving to the pitcher-friendly NL. Wrigley Field can be unkind to pitchers, and while he doubtlessly enjoyed pitching in the cavernous Coliseum after being shipped to the Athletics at the trade deadline, he was actually better, at least by FIP, during his 21 starts as a member of the Red Sox (2.62 vs. 3.13) in 2014. The move to the North Side of Chicago from Oakland may hurt a bit in a ballpark context, but that is more than offset by getting to face a pitcher or pinch-hitter, who is often at replacement level, four times per start. Ultimately, Lester slots in the mid-teens among starting pitchers in fantasy leagues, easily providing SP2 production with the ceiling of a fantasy ace.

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