How Jon Lester Could Impact a Very Close NL Playoff Race

Normally we only do one playoff projection each week. In last Friday’s update, the Pirates had the sixth best odds of making the post season, and were sitting just outside of the second Wild Card spot. Since then, they’ve gone 3-2, with two big wins against the NL Wild Card contending San Francisco Giants. That has given the Pirates a slight jump in the projections this week.

The purpose of this update isn’t to provide the weekly recap of where the Pirates stand. Instead, it’s to freeze the projections before a Jon Lester trade could be made, so that we can see the impact Lester might have on the rest of the season. Below are the projections, and then we’ll look at how Lester could impact the NL Central and NL Wild Card races.

The playoff odds and projections come from the top three projection sites: Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Here are the latest projections.

Baseball Prospectus: 85.5 wins, 53.5% chance to make playoffs

The Baseball Prospectus odds didn’t go up much in terms of projected wins. The chances to make the playoffs went up, largely because the Brewers and Giants continued to slide. The Pirates actually have the lowest playoffs odds of all contenders in the BP projections, but they’re not far from every NL Central and Wild Card team.

FanGraphs: 85.9 wins, 61.0% chance to make playoffs

FanGraphs had the same situation as BP, with the Pirates not adding much in terms of projected wins, but seeing their odds go up with others falling. Unlike BP, FanGraphs has the Pirates ahead of the Brewers and Giants in terms of making the playoffs, and just 1.1% behind the Cardinals.

Clay Davenport: 86.6 wins, 63.3% chance to make playoffs

The projections from Clay Davenport have been higher on the Pirates all year. That continues this week. Just like the other two projections, the wins don’t see a big increase but the odds get a boost. Davenport has the Pirates with the fourth best playoff odds, ahead of the Braves, Brewers, and Giants.

The Competition

Here are the rankings of the NL contenders. To get “contender” status, a team must have a 15% or better to make the playoffs in all three projection systems.

  Team Odds W L




































The Pirates were in sixth place last week, ahead of only the Braves. The latest projections have them jumping over the Brewers and Giants, and right behind the Cardinals.

If we look at this from a wins standpoint, the National League is wide open, outside of the Dodgers and Nationals. The rest of the teams are in the 85-87 win range, with the Pirates right in the middle of that group. I’ve got Jon Lester projected for a 1.7 WAR the rest of the way. If the current projections hold up, then that could be the difference between barely winning the first Wild Card spot, and winning the division for the Pirates.

That’s just using a rough projection. It doesn’t consider what Lester is expected to do in the above projection systems. I plan to update that at the end of the week after Lester gets traded, no matter who he gets traded to, in order to reflect the difference. But right now, it looks like Lester could be a big difference maker in the NL, especially if the Rays decide they’re keeping David Price. That would make Lester the only big upgrade out there, unless someone meets the extremely high demands the Phillies have for Cole Hamels.

  • letsgobucs22
    July 30, 2014 8:38 pm

    WAR is a garbage stat. I find it really annoying that it is referenced in so many articles like it’s the most important and accurate stat available. It’s based on FIP, which I think is a too simplified way to evaluate pitchers and doesn’t take into account ground ball rate, how much soft contact you generate, line drive rate, etc. It’s okay as a rough estimate, but stop trying to act like we can predict player’s incremental contributions to wins so accurately that it should drive all personnel decisions.

  • Just heard that the Orioles are closing in on a deal for Jon Lester…giving up a top pitcher in exchange.

  • sammykhalifa
    July 30, 2014 2:34 pm

    How can seven teams have better than a 50/50 shot of making the postseason?

  • One thing that Pirates Prospects hasn’t reviewed is whether or not Lester (or Lackey) is a natural fit in Pittsburgh in terms of pitching style.

    In this regard, I think that pitchers who specialize in ground ball outs have a better rate of success in Pittsburgh recently, and GB/FB and GO/AO ratios matter quite a bit. The last two highly successful Pirates’ pitching seasons were Burnett in 2012, and Liriano in 2013. In those years, Burnett posted a 1.34 GB/FB and a 2.05 GO/AO ratio, while Liriano posted a 1.07 GB/FB and a 1.52 GO/AO.

    By comparison, neither Lester nor Lackey are guys who induce a high rate of ground balls, either in their careers, or in the past couple of seasons. Lester has a 0.79 GB/FB and 0.96 GB/AO ratio this year, and 0.91/1.26 for his career. Lackey has a 0.90/1.32 ratio this year, and 0.79/1.12 ratio for his career. Neither pitcher has a higher SO% for his year or career that was significantly higher than Burnett or Liriano in their years of success.

    I’m not saying Lester or Lackey couldn’t be highly successful in Pittsburgh, but looking at the ratios I think there are legitimate questions.

  • Cards just got Masterson. Dodgers want Hamels. That means waaaay less competition for Lester. Dodgers will pony up for Hamels.

    • Maybe the asking price for Lester goes down, as Boston begins to realize they may just lose him at the end of the season for nothing.

      • I am fine with the Pirates holding firm and not offering any of the top 5 prospects for Lester but offering a lesser package (including Hanson who seems to have fallen out of favor with the Bucs).

    • With the Cards getting Masterston I just cannot see them also acquiring Lester…I, now, do not know how anyone could out-offer the Pirates for Lester. I see no reason we need to give up anything more than Hanson+Sampson.

      • lonleylibertarian
        July 30, 2014 2:40 pm

        Masterson is an interesting option – and might prove to make a difference in the NL Central. He projects as just under 1.0 WAR for the remainder of the Season – not quite the lift of Lester – but he certainly cost a lot less. Wonder if they offered the Bucs or Brewers a chance to outbid the Cards.

        • Masterson is still currently on the disabled list, correct? But, yeah, Masterson is a good pitcher. I am more concerned, however, with how that will impact negotiations with Boston for Lester. If we can get Lester at a little lower price now then we could well come out ahead

          • lonleylibertarian
            July 30, 2014 2:56 pm

            Yep – knee has been a problem pretty much all year…

            Cards may not be done yet – they really need two arms and Masterson may not be fully healthy – he is due to come off of the DL this weekend.

            They are going to really blow past Carlos Martinez’s innings pitched total if they don’t get him back to the bullpen.

            • They had been linked to Ian Kennedy before as well. Wonder if they take a run at Kennedy to shore up the backend. I doubt they still go hard after either Price or Lester though.

            • Only know this because I just looked Martinez’s is back in the pen, Miller back to rotation, and Wacha to 60 day DL. So the rotation is Wainwright, Lynn, Miller, Kelly (who sucks), and Masterson. That pitching depth sure evaporated.

              Masterson’s velocity has been down all year, 2-3 mph, and walks are way up, he came off the DL for the knee a 2 inning and 3 inning start then went right back on.

              • I would take my chances with Lester, Cole, Liriano, Morton, and Worley/Locke.

                Worley has a higher WAR this year than Locke by the way…found that interesting since everyone seems to want to throw him in the bullpen.

                • I view Masterson as a buy low starter who is injured because the Cardinals currently have two actual starters they can trust. Like how the Giants traded for Peavy when it was apparent Cain is not coming back anytime soon.

                  I removed Volquez first, Worely, Locke is a toss up, those projections don’t know that Locke is pitching very differently from when he was 4.5 batters/9.

                  • Masterson, certainly, is a good buy-low candidate. I think he’ll see some decent rebound numbers, although I don’t think he’ll give the Cards much more than we can get from Liriano.

                    I would be OK at this point with the Bucs acquiring Lackey.

              • Could you imagine, though, if the Cards got both Masterson AND Lester?

              • lonleylibertarian
                July 30, 2014 3:57 pm

                A healthy Masterson would be one thing – but I don’t know that they are much better with him and the health risk – will be interesting to see if they add another arm…

      • BostonsCommon
        July 30, 2014 3:12 pm

        What are the Sox going to do with Hanson when they have Pedroia, Stephen Drew, Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Devon Marrero all standing in the way?

        • That makes sense. I suppose you’d prefer an outfielder. I wouldn’t give up Bell unless you’d include Miller as well.

          • BostonsCommon
            July 30, 2014 3:35 pm

            No doubt… I’m sure the Sox are stuck on Bell… And I’m sure NH is trying to push some combination of Rojas, Ramirez, Barrett Barnes, Willy Garcia, ‘fill-in-the-name-of-the-player-that-wont-get-a-deal-done’

            • Bell is a good enough prospect that if we give him up for Lester I think you should expect to send some added value back the other way. If you were Cherington and I were NH what would you want for Miller and Lester?

              • BostonsCommon
                July 30, 2014 3:43 pm

                I’d probably ask something along the lines of Bell, Glasnow, Cumpton/Locke/Sampson..

                And I would take Bell, Kingham, and a throw in or 2.

                • Sorry, you’d have to add in more value to get two top 50 prospects. The market value, even in this extreme sellers market, is not two top 50 prospects for 2 months of an ace. Gomes added in?

                • I would give you Bell and Sampson and a throw-in for Lester and Miller.

        • With Hanson, Bogaerts, Merrero, Bradley, Betts, and Cecchini, I think you already know what’s going to happen to Drew and Pedroia.

          Gone. Start young.

    • Peter Gammons just reported Dodgers are pulling out of all discussions on Lester, Hamels and Price.

      • Brown, yahoo sports, just mentioned that Price appears basically off the market and the asking price for Lester is still “sky high”…I cannot imagine that the cost can continue to stay that high with noone biting. Miami has moved on to Lackey, the Dodgers are interested in Lackey over Lester, and the Cards just made a trade (although supposedly would still be interested in Lester).

    • Dan Muccino
      July 30, 2014 4:06 pm

      The return on Masterson would’ve very affordable for the Bucs. It sets an interesting precedent for rental starters

  • I wonder if the Pirates wouldn’t be better off to trade for John Lackey. He has one additional year of control and at the league minimum to boot. I do not really think that Lackey provides that much of an upgrade over what we currently have, but then again I don’t really think many of the SP on the market other than Price, Hamels, and Lester really do provide an upgrade. His numbers would transition pretty well to the NL though as he’s been very good the last couple years in a very tough AL East and his ERA is supported by a consistently lower (or on target) FIP.

    • We haven’t heard much about what the Sox would want for Lackey, but given his extra year of control at the league minimum AND the strong possibility he warrants a QO after 2015, the Sox could reasonably ask for the same package. If the ask is Hanson+Sampson+Ramirez, would you rather have Lester or Lackey?

      • I cannot imagine Lester costing more than Lackey, even with the extra year of control at the minimum. I can see them maybe costing, as you said, something close to the same amount but, yes, as a small market club I would take Lackey with an extra year of control at the minimum and a potential pick coming as compensation after he leaves. It would not be a terrible move.

  • Shouldn’t the proper way to evaluate the impact of Lester on the Pirates rotation be calculated by taking the WAR Lester would bring (1.7) and subtracting the WAR that the #5 pitcher that Lester would replace would produce for the rest of the year? If that WAR were negative then Lester would provide a greater than 1.7 WAR upgrade. The problem is that all of the Pirates pitchers are doing well right now. Who would you sit? Locke? Worley? Liriano? Cole? Morton? Don’t they all realistically all have a positive WAR projection for the rest of the year? In that case maybe adding Lester would result in less than a game in additional wins.

    • It’s not much of a difference. The highest WAR this year belongs to Morton, who is at 1.0. That projects for an 0.5 WAR the rest of the way. So Lester would still be a 1.2 WAR upgrade. I think the actual upgrade he’d provide is a 1.5.

      Either way, it will be more accurate to see the projections after a trade is made, since that will account for everything.

      • OK. But I think it is realistic to expect that any of or maybe even all of the above Pirates pitchers will outperform their performance to date in the last two months. But I would sure like to see Lester in a playoff game ahead of any of the pitchers the Pirates currently have.

    • Entirely compensated for by bumping a negative-WAR reliever, of which the Pirates have several.

      Worley’s ROS WAR is 0.2 or 0.3 in about 40 innings. He might only pitch 20 innings out of the bullpen, but let’s assume they are innings of similar quality relative to relief replacement, so the net loss there is only 0.1 WAR. Then you assume that Worley’s 20 innings replace the innings that would have gone to Frieri or Gomez, you get that 0.1 WAR right back. For the Pirates at least, you really can safely add Lester’s projected value to the bottom line and get a new projection.