I thought I’d give my brain a brief rest by taking on the role of sportswriter today. C’mon! All that addled group of ne’er-do-wells really do is make swift and strange pronouncements only to contradict themselves as soon they inevitably prove to be false.
So why am I the only Cub fan who’s not terribly excited about the six year $155 million signing of free agent left hander Jon Lester? Because the chances of a 31 year-old pitcher living up to that kind of contractual obligation sit squarely somewhere between slim and none.
Those seemingly ageless starting pitchers like Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Tom Glavine are so rare you can count ‘em on one hand. (We can’t count Roger Clemens because he had some pharmaceutical assistance!)
Ah! But on the other hand, hurlers of the opposite ilk, i.e. those whose skillset starts a steep decline around age 30, are too numerous to mention. The most infamous free agent pitcher signings include, but aren’t nearly limited to, Carlos Silva, Wayne Garland, Denny Neagle, Darren Dreifort, Chan Ho Park, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, Barry Zito, Jake Peavy, Jason Schmidt, Carl Pavano, C. C. Sabathia, and Justin Verlander.
In an effort to go a little Nate Silver on you, the following starting pitcher aging curve graphic says it all:
Let’s throw caution into the wind and say the Cubs latest acquisition is a rarity who will beat the aging odds. None of it makes any bleepin’ difference unless he manages to stay healthy. And the probability of that possibility coming to pass ain’t real good either.
The red pitcher line on the following MLB player injury risk by position and age graph says it all.
As those humorless insurance actuaries like to say, pitchers over the age of thirty are not a very good risk. And remember, we’re talking about 25 players slogging through a 162 game season which provides the kind of large sample size that makes those percentages far more likely to play out.
That said, if anyone can beat the odds it’s Jon Lester. He’s made at least 31 starts in each of his last seven seasons, he’s smart, and he relies more on stuff than speed. But legendary Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane has made a career out of playing the probabilities and as a result, the A’s, the smallest of all small market teams, continually contend.
The Cubs? Not so much.
Ironically, when Beane threw his percentage playbook out the window went for broke this season, it didn’t turn out too well. The A’s second half was the stuff of nightmares. We all love to bet on the 20 to 1 shots at the track, but the truth is, only the gamblers who wager on the consistent favorites make money.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand there’s more to this deal than simply signing a staff ace. Cubs management wanted to make a splash and they wanted to let the fans and every other National League Central Division team know they’re serious. Good for them!
But if I was in Theo Epstein’s unenviable shoes, I would’ve re-signed Jeff Samadzija and given Johnny Cueto a shot. That’s two good arms, they’re both considerably younger, and their combined salaries would’ve been around $5 million less than Lester’s.
Of course, when it comes to any aspect of the Chicago Cubs, the best thing you can say is that hope springs eternal. Perhaps we’ll get five good years out of Lester. But as is almost the case with our lovable losers, I wouldn’t bet on it.