Ace Battle: Lester or Hamels?

In today’s pitching-rich environment, it may seem silly to nitpick starters to death, parsing out their every metric until you can declare one the winner. But spring training isn’t over yet, and until the real games start, I don’t have 2016 data to analyze. Therefore I’ve opted to pit two well-known starting pitchers against each other and see who comes out on top. Neither Jon Lester nor Cole Hamels is really seen as a top-10 SP at this point, because other young guns have knocked them down a few pegs. However, that makes these two veterans more likely to turn a profit in the draft. So which one should you go with when all is said and done?

2013

Neither ace had a strong dollar value three years ago. For Lester, he improved on his career worst ERA and HR/FB from 2012, but his ERA was still high for him at 3.75, and he also posted his second highest full-season WHIP. His low K/9 from 2012 didn’t improve, but he managed to improve his BB/9 for a third straight year. He was simply an innings eater who managed a lucky 15 wins.

As for Hamels, he couldn’t earn a win to save his life, ending up with 8 for the season. That’s the biggest culprit in deflating his 5×5 value; that and he suffered a dip in his K/9 from 9.0 in 2012 to 8.3. After three seasons under a 3.10 ERA, Hamels jumped to 3.60, which was decent but high for him. It was his fourth straight year of posting 200+ innings, so like Lester, he was helpful but a disappointment.

2014

Lester pulled off the best year of his career in 2014. His dropping K/9 rebounded to a solid 9.0, and he found a new approach to pitching by cutting his BB/9 to a career best of 2.0. He may have benefited from some slight luck in strand rate and HR/FB, but neither was an extreme outlier, and the increased strikeouts help explain the higher strand rate. After never posting an ERA under 3.20, he broke through to an elite 2.46. His WHIP benefited from the improved walk rate and the higher strikeouts. He also managed 16 wins, which don’t seem very high compared to the early 2000s, but it tied for tenth in baseball.

Unfortunately for Hamels, his lack of wins continued for a second season, and he only netted 9 of them. That was the biggest blip in his season, because he also posted a career best ERA of 2.46. A slightly lucky strand rate and a career best HR/FB likely aided the breakout ERA, but his skill set was strong and also justified it. His K/9 bounced up to 8.7, and after three years of his average fastball velocity sitting in the 91 range, he got it up to 92, helping to sustain his high swinging strike rate and the K/9 boost. His WHIP was good, but Hamels has always managed a strong rate there so it was to be expected. His walk rate rose a little, but at 2.6 it was still solid, and another 200 innings resulted in very strong value for his ratio stats.

2015

Lester’s new home park may have put an end to his improving HR/FB, but he managed a major league average 10%, so it didn’t affect him that badly. He also managed to get the ball on the ground more with a 49% rate, which matched up better with his early career peak from 2008-11. Perhaps most important was his ability to hold onto the gains he’d made in K/9 and BB/9 during 2014. The wins were a bit scarcer despite the Cubs’ winning ways, so his 5×5 value took a hit, but overall he earned his new contract and was a solid ace. He may have warranted a bit more fantasy attention if not for the fact that Arrieta outshone him for the season. He’s made small improvements in swinging strike rate for three straight seasons, and he’s maintained a career high 61% first pitch strike rate for those years as well, proving the new and improved WHIP is here to stay.

Hamels split time between two teams in 2015, and he was a bit of a mixed bag from month to month. He suffered from very bad BABIP in June and July, and though June’s 30% line drive rate implies batters were seeing his pitches too well, July’s 18% lacks any obvious explanation except luck. His walk rate held steady at 2.6, which may mean he’s lost his truly elite BB/9 from earlier in his career, but he’ll still post solid numbers. He continued his K/9 gains with a 9.1 mark, one of the best of his career. He also put up his second best GB%, and if he can hold onto that level, it would certainly help him in hitter-friendly Texas. That said, his HR/FB in August and September (15%, 11%) were higher than his previous three months in Philly (7%, 6%, 5%), and he lost the uptick in grounders after relocating.

The 2016 Verdict

These two starters are extremely comparable. They’re the same age, and they have long histories of dominance. That said, I like Lester a little more for 2016 and beyond. He’s reaching new levels, at least compared to his last five years. He’ll have a strong offense and defense as a supporting cast. And though the NL vs. AL debate doesn’t count for a ton, it’s a tiny bonus.

As for Hamels, his less friendly home park, the gopheritis in April 2015, and the up-and-down BB/9 every month make him seem a little less steady and reliable. I’d still roster Hamels for sure, but if I have to pick between the two, I’ll go with Lester. The best argument for going with Hamels is that his ADP is a bit lower than Lester’s, 74 compared to 61, and he’s been picked as late as 101 (compared to Lester’s 90). If Lester goes earlier than his ADP, and Hamels is there after the first five rounds in a 15-team league, I’d have no qualms about getting a nearly identical SP for a lower cost.

I have no problem projecting Lester for another strong season of 200 IP and 200 K, along with an ERA below 3.35 and a WHIP below 1.15. He should also collect a good amount of wins moving forward. As for Hamels, I’ll take the over on 3.35 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. The strikeouts and innings should still be there, but there are small chinks in the armor, so his floor is slightly lower than Lester’s. Texas’s offense is also less amazing than Chicago’s, so wins could continue to be lower for him.

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.
Kevin Jebens

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