For weeks, many in the baseball industry have espoused two central beliefs on the free-agent pitching marketplace.
1. Jon Lester will sign before Max Scherzer.
2. Jon Lester will sign for less money than Max Scherzer.
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Often, the logic behind conventional wisdom of this kind can be proven flawed upon closer examination. That is not the case here.
Lester indeed appears closer to signing than Scherzer, based on recent reports. And judging by the available metrics, Scherzer’s value in the marketplace ought to be higher than Lester’s.
The fact that Scherzer, 30, is roughly six months younger than Lester, 30, is only part of the reason why.
Lester actually has the better career ERA+ than Scherzer, but the more recent numbers favor Scherzer. Over the past three seasons, Scherzer ranks fifth in the majors in Fielding Independent Pitching among those with at least 500 innings, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and Anibal Sanchez. Lester ranks 19th on the same list, barely ahead of fellow free agent James Shields, who is 21st.
In that respect, Lester’s recent performance has been closer to that of Shields than Scherzer.
The story is the same in ERA+, which adjusts for league and park factors, over the past three years: Scherzer ranks sixth; Shields is next among current free agents at 16th, followed by Lester at 27th. (Shields is more than two years older than Lester, which partially explains why Lester is expected to get a larger deal than Shields.)
Lester, of course, is the more accomplished October pitcher, but teams tend to base their valuations more on regular-season performance. Plus, it’s not as though Scherzer has flopped on the big stage. Lester’s postseason ERA and WHIP are 2.57 and 1.071, respectively; Scherzer’s are 3.73 and 1.133 over a comparable number of games.
Also: Scherzer has the most strikeouts in baseball over the past three years. And power pays, right?
What we know of the contract offers to Scherzer and Lester confirm the gap between them. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported that the Red Sox offered Lester a six-year contract worth between $110 million and $120 million. At the high end, that equates to an average annual value of $20 million â which is $4 million less per annum than the offer Scherzer rejected from the Tigers in spring training (six years, $144 million).
So, let’s follow the chronology: Scherzer turned down $24 million per year in March, then put together a second straight All-Star season in which he finished fifth in the Cy Young Award voting, and now he’s available for bidding on the open market.
Under the circumstances, it’s reasonable for Scherzer and his agent, Scott Boras, to ask for an average salary of $26 million per year. That’s a significant number, because — on a per-year basis — it would make Scherzer the second highest-paid pitcher ever on a multiyear deal, behind only Kershaw.
Justin Verlander ($25.7 million) and Felix Hernandez ($25 million) are right behind Kershaw on that list, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Have Verlander and Hernandez achieved more in their careers than Scherzer? Yes. But neither of those deals came with the inherent boost of free agency, which is why Scherzer may be able to surpass them.
Even if Lester gets another offer that exceeds $20 million per year, it’s likely to be below what Scherzer ultimately is going to receive — whether that payday arrives in December or January, as is often the case for Boras clients.