If there were any doubts about Jon Lester's desire to remain with the Red Sox beyond this coming season, they vanished on Thursday. The left-hander offered one of the most striking public expressions ever heard by a Red Sox player nearing free agency about his hope to avoid testing the market. He made clear not only that he considers the city his home, but stated bluntly that he won't balk about the idea of leaving money on the table in order to stay.
"I want to be here till they have to rip this jersey off my back," said Lester.
The Red Sox, of course, share the sentiment to some degree. They value what Lester has done in his career with them, both on and off the field, and appreciate the distinct relationship that has been forged through not just a playing career but also through a more significant health concern, when the then-22-year-old was diagnosed with cancer.
Yet it is the job of the team not merely to get caught in sentiment, but instead to delve into the particulars of whether or not a long-term investment in Lester -- even at a supposed discount -- would represent a solid one. After all, even the pitcher himself recognizes that he is not Clayton Kershaw or even Masahiro Tanaka, 25-year-olds who seemingly stand on the cusp of their career peaks. Lester, by contrast, just turned (gasp) 30 this month.
So, about life at (and after) 30 ...
"From what I've heard, I'm basically dead now, as far as being a pitcher," Lester said with a smirk, before offering a more candid assessment of his health. "I feel good. Other than just the normal getting back into things, the first two weeks of the offseason and getting back into everything is hell. You feel like an old man. Every year it's the same thing, and then you pick up a baseball, and you're like, 'God, I don't know if I can do this this year,' and you get through the initial two weeks of lifting and that first week of throwing, and after that it usually falls back into place. I surprisingly feel pretty good -- to be 30."
Though Lester was kidding, there is a reality: Being 30 is different -- even for someone like Lester, who has been one of the most durable pitchers in the game since he broke through as a staple of the Red Sox rotation as a 24-year-old in 2008.
Before getting to the grim reality of life as a thirtysomething pitcher, it's worth noting the degree to which Lester has distinguished himself as one of the game's most reliable hurlers.
He's one of just nine pitchers (joining Justin Verlander, James Shields, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Mark Buehrle and Bronson Arroyo) to produce six straight years of 190 or more innings, and one of 10 (add Matt Cain to the aforementioned list) with 200 or more innings in at least five of the last six years. He ranks 10th in the majors in wins above replacement (WAR) as measured by Baseball-Reference.com, behind a who's who of the game's top pitchers (Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Jared Weaver) and ahead of some notable peers (Matt Cain, Mark Buehrle and Adam Wainwright slot right behind him).
Does that stature suggest that Lester represents a good bet to defy his age? Coming off one of the most dominant stretches in his career -- while his year-ending 3.75 ERA was fairly pedestrian, from the second half through the end of the postseason, he had a 2.27 ERA in 18 starts -- might Lester represent a relatively safe bet to sustain his performance of his career to date through whatever sort of contract extension he might sign?
Short answer: No.
Since 1960, Lester is one of 32 pitchers in all of baseball to record six straight seasons of 180 or more innings with an ERA+ (ERA compared to league average) of 110 (meaning 10 percent better than league average). Lester, in fact, ranks in the upper half of that group with a 120 ERA+ for his age 24-29 seasons -- just behind one Hall of Famer (Catfish Hunter) and just ahead of another (Don Drysdale).
So what happened to that group -- the pitchers who showed the ability both to perform at an above-average level while enduring a consistent workload in their late-20s -- after they reached their 30s?
Using that group of 32 pitchers, decline would appear a virtual inevitability for Lester. Of the pitchers on the list, every one of them experienced some kind of performance decline from their 20s to the next six years (ages 30-35) -- the years that Lester and the Sox will likely discuss to frame a possible extension. (Lester, of course, is already under contract for his age 30 season; his age 31-35 campaigns are what will likely be discussed for contract purposes.)
Based on the history of those whose age 24-29 seasons compare to or exceeded Lester's in terms of durability and dominance, the most charitable interpretation suggests a likely innings decrease of about 25 percent -- though more if one notes that Brandon Webb didn't log a single inning from ages 31-35; Don Drysdale's age 32 campaign was his last; Ken Holtzman, Catfish Hunter and Jack McDowell were finished at age 33; and Fritz Peterson never pitched after his age 34 season. (One other pitcher -- Don Wilson -- died tragically after his age 30 season.) And, of course, some of the pitchers in the sample (Lester, CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels, Mark Buehrle, Justin Verlander) are active with likely performance and durability declines in their future.
Given the decrease in innings that can be expected, it's also little surprise to see that a decrease in overall value typically accompanies this sample of pitchers as they reached their 30s. Most strikingly, exactly ZERO of the 32 pitchers on this list saw his average WAR per season increase from ages 24-29 to ages 30-35. Instead, the only issue was the extent of the performance decline from one six-year period to the next.
The best-case scenarios featured a relatively modest decline -- a level of consistency into the mid-30s that made Hall of Fame cases for Bert Blyleven (5 percent decline in WAR per year) and Don Sutton (6 percent). The worst-case scenarios featured pitchers who lost nearly all of their value by the time they reached their 30s, whether due to injuries (Webb, Holtzman) or declines in stuff (Barry Zito ranking among the foremost examples).
On average, in the six-year span from ages 24-29, this group of pitchers posted a WAR of 4.8 -- a mark that would typically rank among the top 20 or better among all big league starters. From age 30-35, the same group posted an average WAR of 3.0 -- a mark more typically representative of a No. 2 starter.
That distinction is noteworthy, since part of the rationale behind signing Lester to a long-term deal is the idea that he represents the sort of top-of-the-rotation starter around whom the Sox can build their rotation both now and into the future.
The Sox have a number of candidates to be strong No. 2 or 3 starters in the big leagues but no surefire No. 1. (Clay Buchholz comes the closest, but has only one full big league year in which he performed at such a level; of the prospects in the Sox system, Allen Webster and Trey Ball are the only ones with the arsenals that suggest a potential No. 1 -- Henry Owens' ceiling is more typically considered that of a No. 2.) Lester would seem the team's best shot at a pitcher of that caliber. But is he likely to live up to that stature in his next deal?
Again, the answer is likely a no. Pitchers who are over 30 are only rarely among the best in the game.
A look at last 10 years suggests as much. Using the loose definition of a No. 1 starter as one of the top 30 starting pitchers in the big leagues (as measured by WAR), most of the top 30 starters in the big leagues (meaning, those whose performances would be in theory good enough to front a rotation somewhere) came from the demographic that Lester is exiting -- the pitchers in the age 24-29 bracket. Roughly five of every eight pitchers who ranked in the top 30 for a single season (62 percent) fell somewhere between 24 and 29 years old. During the same 10-year span, roughly one out of every five (21 percent) came from the 30- to 35-year-old demographic that Lester is entering.
In other words, assuming a normal performance decline of about 37.5 percent from the No. 1-caliber level at which Lester has been performing (4.2 WAR per year), based on his peer group, he'd look likely to average about 2.7 wins above replacement per year -- a level that would have him, on average, in the neighborhood of the top 50 2013 performances by a starting pitcher, close to teammate John Lackey (2.8), Rays ace David Price (2.8 in an injury-riddled year) and free agents Ervin Santana (2.8), Ubaldo Jimenez (2.7) and Bronson Arroyo (2.5).
So, Lester would project to average being a top-50 starting pitcher in the big leagues from ages 30-35. While that may sound like a modest assessment, it would suggest a pitcher whose coming years are a decent bet to be, on average, at the level of a No. 2 big league starter.
Given that one executive whose team was in the $20 million-plus per year bidding on Tanaka said that his team viewed the Japanese right-hander as a No. 2 starter in the U.S., it's not hard to see why Lester likely would be in line to hit a jackpot in excess of $100 million and $20 million a year if he were to have a solid 2014 season and reach free agency. Such dollar figures are now appropriate for a likely No. 2 starter -- something that Lester, in the aggregate, appears a decent chance to be over the life of his next deal.
There are no guarantees, of course. The Sox thought that Josh Beckett represented a strong bet for his four-year contract extension; instead, the team ended up dumping him to the Dodgers at a time when his results, stuff and health were all in a state of decline. Still, as these things go, Lester does appear to represent a solid enough bet that his declared interest in staying with the team for the long haul -- and his openness to putting his money where his mouth is -- should be reciprocated in the form of a contract extension whose parameters could come together fairly quickly when the two sides sit down to discuss the matter.