A look at this year’s market for free agent starting pitching reveals a group that is deep in quality options and also features a pair of prime-aged top-of-the-rotation arms in Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. This duo, represented by Scott Boras and ACES, respectively, is commonly believed to be the cream of the free agent crop, but which will be the better buy?
Few pitchers have been as dominant as Scherzer over the past two seasons. In that time, he’s pitched to a 3.02 ERA with 10.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and a 36.5 percent ground-ball rate in 434 2/3 innings. His K/9 rate trails only Yu Darvish among qualified starters, and he grades out well according to ERA estimators FIP (2.79 — sixth) and SIERA (2.94 — eighth). In that two-year stretch, Scherzer leads qualified starters in ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, K/9 and opponent batting average (.216), to name a few categories. He’s entering his age-30 season on the heels of a pair of All-Star appearances and a pair of top five finishes in the Cy Young voting — including his first Cy Young win in 2013. The 6’3″, 220-pound right-hander has cemented himselves among the game’s elite arms and is looking for a sizable payday, as evidenced by his rejection of a six-year, $144MM contract extension in Spring Training.
Lester is no slouch, however, as he ranks second to Scherzer in ERA (3.10) and FIP (3.19) among qualified free agent starters in that time. His SIERA mark, though a ways behind at 3.49, is still third-best over the past two seasons (Brandon McCarthy sits between them). Beyond that, Lester has been more of a workhorse in his career; he has reached the 200-inning mark in six of the past seven seasons, falling shy only in 2011 when he tossed 191 2/3 frames. Lester certainly keeps the ball on the ground more often than Scherzer, with a career ground-ball rate just under 47 percent and sitting at 43.7 percent over the past two seasons. Lester is also coming off the best platform season of any free agent starter, having pitched to a brilliant 2.46 ERA with 9.0 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and a 42.4 percent ground-ball rate. He’s spent almost all of his career in the hitter-friendly AL East, whereas Scherzer has spent more time in a more favorable pitching environment (Detroit’s Comerica Park). Lester is a year older than Scherzer, however, and he’s thrown about 300 more innings in his big league career. He’s rumored to already have an offer upwards of $120MM from the Red Sox, and another possibly as large as $135MM from the Cubs, so the price tag figures to be substantial here as well.
In our free agent profiles, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes predicted a seven-year contract for Scherzer while I personally went with six years for Lester, but it certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see a team guarantee Lester that seventh season. The above paragraphs are a mere snapshot of each pitcher, while the linked profiles offer a more in-depth look at the pair of aces. You can read over those to brush up on each pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses before making a vote below if you wish, but let’s get to the question at the root of this post.