Change-UpSeptember 23, 2009
Twenty Five
By Patrick Sullivan

Towards the end of August of this season, as Jon Lester was wrapping up a month in which he would strike out over four times as many batters as he would walk and hold opposing hitters to a .178/.242/.271 line, I thought it might be interesting to see how he was stacking up from an historic perspective thus far in his young career. Let's leave aside his personal story for the moment and take note of the fact that at the age of 25, he has now posted back to back seasons of better than 140 ERA+ pitching while throwing a good amount of innings and backing it up with impressive peripherals. What's more, his strikeout rate has jumped more than 50% in 2009 over 2008 to nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings, suggesting he may have developed to the point where he will be an elite pitcher for years to come.

But let's stick to the present. I wanted to have a look at how many other players in the last 50 years had pitched as impressively as Lester had in his 24 year-old and 25 year-old Big League seasons. So of course, I ventured over to Baseball Reference's Play Index. Parameters: Since 1959, the best combined 24-25 seasons, minimum 350 innings pitched, as determined by Adjusted ERA+. Admittedly I cherry-picked these parameters because they apply specifically to what I had observed about Lester - that he had been very good in his 24 and 25 seasons. Here is the list this criteria produced:

Player     From-To   ERA+   K/9    K/BB
Appier     '92-'93   173    6.77   2.26
Lincecum   '08-'09   170   10.51   3.48
Santana    '03-'04   166   10.11   4.30
Greinke    '08-'09   155    8.88   4.07
Pedro      '96-'97   154   10.36   3.85
Seaver     '69-'70   152    7.84   2.98
Clemens    '87-'88   148    9.02   3.77
Zito       '02-'03   145    6.40   1.98
Oswalt     '02-'03   145    7.89   3.47
Webb       '03-'04   143    7.78   1.80
McLain     '68-'69   143    6.28   3.55
Lester     '08-'09   143    8.16   2.91

Yes, it’s arbitrary but take a look at that. We are witnessing three of the best 25 year-old pitchers of the last 50 years. In fairness, Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke are in a league all their own but Lester holds his own, showing up 12th on the list. And with his peripherals as strong as ever but his balls in play luck down a bit, Cole Hamels, another 25 year-old, probably deserves a spot here as well. Had he posted ERA numbers similar to his 2007 and 2008 seasons in 2009, he would be right there.

What’s even more interesting is that when you take a look at the head scratchers, the guys that might make you inclined not to place much stock in such a list, a look at their peripheral numbers accurately predicts which pitchers would continue their greatness and which pitchers might take a step back. Kevin Appier and Barry Zito, for instance, rank at the bottom of the list in K/9 and K/BB. Soon after their 24-25 seasons, Appier and Zito would both settle in as very good pitchers and not the great ones their ERA figures might have suggested they had become. You could place Brandon Webb in that category, too, but his ridiculous 119 walks in 2004 badly skews his numbers. Never again has he even approached that number of bases on balls. Denny McLain’s K/BB numbers were terrific but his K/9 figure did not quite stack up. Either way, injury and off-the-field trouble would derail McLain’s career.

So we have whittled the list down a bit. We’re going to keep Webb for the reasons specified above but eliminate Appier, Zito and McLain. Also, let’s take the following into account; since the All-Star Break 2008, in 43 starts, Lester has posted a 9.2 K/9 and 3.48 K/BB – numbers that push him a lot closer to that Lincecum and Greinke neighborhood than the Appier one. Like Timmy and Zack, Lester’s future looks bright. With our new list, Lester finds himself alongside the no-brainer 2009 AL and NL Cy Young Award winners, Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Webb. Not bad company at all.

The Play Index is great fun for things like this. If you suspect one of your favorite players might be inching up (or down) into select company, have a look. In this case, I learned that baseball is currently showcasing some of the most promising - historically promising - young pitching talent to burst onto the scene simultaneously in years. And that Jon Lester is one heck of a pitcher.


I was a bit suprised that Felix Hernandez wasn't on the list. Then I checked and he's only 23. I'll be curious to see where he stacks in two years.

really? 'the no-brainer 2009 AL and NL Cy Young Award winners'? It makes for a nice sentence and is true about the AL, but to suggest that the NL Cy Young award for 2009 is a 'no-brainer' is borderline ridiculous. To say the stats of the Cardinals duo, Carpenter (albeit in a abbreviated season) and Wainwright, do not even merit consideration, well, I think it is being shortsighted. I understand that you will immediately point to WAR, but I think for this to be the be-all, end-all stat is overly simplistic. And to be clear, I am not arguing for using 'wins' as a top 3 barometer for awarding the Cy. While Lincecum appears to be leading the vote at this point, there are a couple of starts left for each pitcher and things are close enough that it could certainly swing my vote if I had one.

stats by pitcher (adjusted era +, IP, WHIP, BBs per 9, K's per 9, K's per BB)

Lincecum - 174, 211.1, 1.06, 2.7, 10.5, 3.9

Carpenter - 178, 180.2, 1.01, 1.7, 6.8, 4.0

Wainwright - 161, 219.0, 1.20, 2.6, 7.9, 3.1

I am not sure that the numbers presented compel me to rethink my wording, Mark. If Carpenter's been better, he has only been so by the slimmest of margins. But he has tossed 30 fewer innings.

As for Wainwright, his numbers are worse across the board, except he has thrown 8 more innings - not enough to change my thinking.

I'd say Wainwright is a fraud of an elite pitcher (though he's a very good one, but just not elite). Even adjustments like ERA+ assume even adjustments for everyone, but when looking at individuals I've always felt such an analysis falls short.

To wit, just look up Wainwright's home and away splits for this year. It's basically like an old school pitcher's version of Todd Helton's splits: a very strong player away from home, and a HOF worthy year at home. Factoring in that the new Busch Stadium might be the second best pitcher's park in baseball since it opened and I'd say Wainwright is very much helped by his ballpark and, therefore, not as good as even his adjusted numbers suggest.

In other words...please don't put Wainwright in the same conversation as Lincecum.

I believe Sully is correct that Greinke and Lincecum are deserving of the Cy Young Award at this point in time. However, the MLB Cy Young Predictor, as developed by Bill James and Rob Neyer, suggests that Greinke is in tough with Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia in the A.L., while Lincecum is actually trailing Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and even Jonathan Broxton in the N.L.

The formula, which is based on past results, is as follows:

Cy Young Points (CYP) = ((5*IP/9)-ER) + (SO/12) + (SV*2.5) + Shutouts + ((W*6)-(L*2)) + VB (see below).

VB: Victory Bonus is a 12-point bonus awarded for leading your team to the division champsionship (pro-rated based on the current standings)

What this MLB Cy Young Predictor tells me is that Lincecum may find the going tough. While Tim *should* earn the award based on merit, he may not get the support from the voters. The fact that he won last year could actually hurt him as it is my belief that some writers like to spread the wealth around and give the edge to a new name in cases that are close.

I applaud you for admitting to "cherry picking" the parameters, which clearly favor Lester over, say, a three-year period or career to date for 25 year olds. That said, using your parameters, I'd like to see a list of pitchers with an ERA+ between 125 and 160 so as to place Lester in the middle of his comps rather than at the bottom. While this list may not place him in such elite company as yours, I believe it will be more reflective of where Lester ranks among "the best combined 24-25 seasons" of the past 50 years.

Rich, ask and you shall receive...

In descending order by ERA+, here is the list of folks below Lester and 125 or better:

J. Maloney
T. John
A. Pena
C. Zambrano
W. Miller
A. Anderson
J. Thompson
M. Witt
S. Comer

Only a handful of these guys boast peripherals as good as or better than Lester's over this time. If you want to take Lester's periphs since ASB '08, then really it's just Blyleven, Saberhagen and Maloney who look as good.

A three-year period would leave Lester off entirely but then, we all know why that would be. I thought I'd give him a break.

For what it's worth, I think "Hamels or Lester" is one of the more interesting debates in baseball right now. Two 25 year-old lefties with a great track record. After the 2008 post-season, I would have said Hamels hands-down. Now, with the leap forward Lester has made this year, I am not so sure.

Back to the races for the Cy Young Awards, if the season ended today, I believe many writers would vote for Chris Carpenter over Tim Lincecum. They would look at Carpenter's higher win total (16 to 14), better W-L % (.800 vs. .667), and lower ERA (2.30 and 2.47) and not look at much more than that, including Lincecum's huge advantage in IP (218.1 to 187.2) and SO (254 to 138).

By the same token, I think many writers will favor Felix Hernandez (17-5, 2.49) over Zack Greinke (15-8, 2.08) due to his superiority in wins and W-L %. Greinke's lower ERA, however, may sway enough voters to put him over the top.

While Lincecum and Greinke have the better defense or fielding independent pitching stats, it is my belief that the writers will continue to pay the most attention to W, W-L %, ERA, and SO and, therefore, the final starts this week could well determine who wins the NL and AL CYA.

Very nicely researched piece, Sully--but in the process you jinxed both Jon Lester AND 'Lil Timmy Lincicum! (A 14-7 record just ain't winning no Cy Youngs, not with the stellar seasons posted by St. Louis' twin aces.)

An unrelated aside: anybody notice BP's rankings in WARP for pitchers? Incredibly, according to that metric Dan Haren has been 40-50% more valuable than either Carpenter, Wainwright, or Lincicum. I doubt even Haren's immediate family would agree with that bizarre valuation.

Clerical error, or deep flaw in the WARP methodology?