Has Jon Lester become the best pitcher in the American League?

At the present moment, only two pitchers in the American League have a higher WAR than Jon Lester and his jaw-dropping 4.2: Francisco Liriano (5.1!) and Cliff Lee (4.3).

Before I go too much further, I have to admit that I’ve been a huge Lester fan for a while now. I know that sounds like anathema to a lot of Yankee fans, but how can you not root for a guy who beat cancer? Plus, he’s flat-out awesome at pitching. If I were a Boston fan I would be giddy every fifth day getting to watch this guy pitch.

Anyway, here’s a glance at what Lester has done during his career, courtesy of Fangraphs:

It’s really a thing of beauty, isn’t it? He’s done exactly what every General Manager in the game dreams that their young arms will do: Gotten significantly better every year he’s pitched. Not only that, but he’s compiled these jaw-dropping numbers in the AL East.

His 2008 breakout season was insane: 210 IP of 3.21 ERA ball, worth 5.1 WAR and $22.8 million. If that weren’t enough, he was even better in 2009. Though he pitched seven less innings, not only did his strikeout rate explode from 6.50 to 9.96 K/9 and BAA fall by .009 points, but he pitched to a 3.15 FIP! Only four pitchers in the AL had better FIPs, and only one of those four was in the AL East: Roy Halladay. Lester was worth an obscene 6.2 WAR and $28.1 million in 2009. Would you like to know how much Lester was paid last season? $1 million.

Additionally, he’s under contract for three more seasons after 2010 (with a $13 million option for 2014), and will be paid $28.75 through 2013, which means he nearly outplayed the entire value of his five-year contract in one year. So not only might he be the best pitcher in the American League, he might also be the best value, too.

And despite those eye-popping 2009 numbers, he’s arguably having his best season ever this year. Though the strikeouts are a tick down and the walks a tick up, his HR/9 has nearly halved itself from 0.89 to 0.46 while his BAA has plummeted from .245 to .207. His 2.92 ERA is good for sixth-best in the AL and his 2.89 FIP is third, again behind Liriano and Lee.

Here are the top 10 WARs for American League pitchers in the last three seasons:

And here is, by my count, the top three cumulative WARs in the American League over the last three seasons:

Now if Doc Halladay had compiled the 4.8 WAR he’s accumulated this season with the Phillies in the American League, he’d be the top dog on this list, with 19.5. And if you add Lee’s 2.4 with Philadelphia last year to his three-year AL total, he’d be second with 18.1. Which can’t help but reopen the old question from this past offseason of Why on earth didn’t Ruben Amaro do whatever it took to keep both Lee and Halladay? I would’ve been freaking the heck out this past offseason had I been a Philly fan, having missed out on the chance to staff one of the most devastating one-two combinations in baseball history!

Also, you may notice down there in ninth place is Gavin Floyd, also a former Phillie. Granted, Floyd’s last season in Philadelphia in 2006 was pretty terrible (-0.7 WAR) and I doubt anyone could’ve foreseen what Floyd would end up becoming, but it’s still pretty ridiculous to think that the Phillies hypothetically could’ve had three of the top 9 in AL WAR over the last three seasons in their starting rotation.

But I digress. This is supposed to be a post about Jon Lester, after all.

As you can see from the above chart, one could make a very strong case for Lester as the best pitcher in the American League. I know Greinke has him beat by 2.1 WAR over the past three seasons, but Greinke’s also had the benefit of making most of his starts against lesser competition in the AL Central, while Lester not only pitches in the strongest division in baseball but does so in perhaps the friendliest offensive home ballpark in the league. And he’s a year younger than Greinke!

In any event, with apologies to Zach Greinke, I think it’s safe to say that Jon Lester has become the best pitcher in the American League. Although if there’s one other important bit to be gleaned from that cumulative WAR list, it’s that I now want the Yankees to sign Cliff Lee this offseason even moreso than I did previously, which I didn’t realize was possible.

Photo c/o Getty Images

6 thoughts on “Has Jon Lester become the best pitcher in the American League?

  1. I wouldn't exactly say I love Lester but I am definitely more fond of him than I am of most other Red Sox. I'll take Lee over Lester but it's close.

    Word verification: hyper. I am amused :D

  2. I always his mound visits go something like:

    COACH: keep your mechanics together, attack inside with your fast ball, off speed away, and we'll beat this guy.

    LESTER. Right. Thanks for coming out here; I need every bit of advice I can get on how to beat the batter… I mean, I beat cancer, but this pitching thing… oh wait, I'm awesome at that, too. So how bout you get your FAT ASS back in the dugout?
    not that he has an attitude I'm aware of. But he could and totally get away with it – at least with me.

    I don't understand the point of trading for Halladay and not keeping Lee – it's like they had a 2010 sports car with 25000 miles on it and traded it in for one with 50000 miles on it – its pretty much the same car. now if you had both cars, you'd be a tough guy… with two of the same car, but whatever.


  3. Ha, had a feeling I was forgetting someone important! CC's AL WAR over the last three seasons is 11.9, so he should be seventh on the three-year cumulative list.

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