Among the many comments yesterday by and about new Chicago Cubs lefty Jon Lester, one in particular stuck out at me as worth an extra glance, even if just for fun. Well, in addition to the deer urine comment, that is.
Jon Greenberg has a very healthy write-up on all things Lester press conference at ESPN, and you should give it a read. The thrust of the piece is about the obvious risk attached to a $155 million investment in a pitcher’s arm, and about how a pitcher like Lester could and may maintain a high level of performance on into his 30s. The Cubs did their homework, which can never eliminate the risk of a breakdown or injury, but it helps. It’s a good read.
The comment, though, at which I wanted to take an extra look is this one:
“He’s left-handed, and left-handed pitchers tend to perform better throughout their contracts than right-handed pitchers,” Epstein said, according to Greenberg. “He’s got the right kind of pitch mix that will allow him to age gracefully. He doesn’t get hitters out just one way, especially now that his curveball is back in the mix, where he’s working both sides of the plate. The cutter is a weapon that ages very well. If you look at Andy Pettitte, he aged extremely well through his 30s. He’s a reasonable [comparison]. The second half of Jon Lester’s career you want to look like Andy Pettitte.”
Setting aside the data points that suggest Lester is among the better bets to stay healthy and effective into his 30s (Lester’s healthy arm so far in his career is another one), I want to linger on that Pettitte comp. If things play out that way for the Cubs, I think they’ll be exceedingly happy with this signing.
Between 2003 and 2008 – the six seasons starting with his age 31 season (Lester will be 31 next year) – Andy Pettitte posted a 3.83 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and 3.58 xFIP over 1147.1 innings (just shy of 200 per year). In that span, which you should remember was a very different offensive era, he struck out 18.7% of the batters he faced, and walked just 6.5%. He accumulated 23.8 WAR in those six seasons. That’s all rather fantastic for a guy aged 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, and 36.
Pettitte, 6’5″ and 225 lbs, was a big, strong lefty, not unlike Lester, who is listed at 6’4″ and 240 lbs. Like Lester, Pettitte never leaned too hard on any one pitch, instead working a five-pitch mix, including a four-seamer, a sinker, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. Incidentally, Lester also generally mixes five pitches: a four-seamer, a sinker, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. And Lester does it in roughly the same proportions as Pettitte did (see Pettitte at Brooks, see Lester at Brooks). We don’t have accurate velocity data on Pettitte before 2007, but he was still finding success then without a fastball that topped 90mph very frequently. Lester’s four-seamer sat around 93mph in 2014. So that’s nice.
Prior to that age 31 season, by the way, Pettitte had a 3.78 career FIP and a 3.68 career xFIP. Lester currently stands at 3.58, and 3.67.
Every player is a unique individual, subject to latent things that will impact his aging and performance in ways that will always be obscured to outside perspective. But, superficially, Pettitte’s age 31 to 36 seasons look not only like a fantastic outcome for Lester’s age 31 to 36 seasons, they also look like a reasonable outcome for which to hope based on everything we know at this point.