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Jon Lester vs. Jose Quintana: Who’s the Best Pitcher in Chicago?

Jon Lester is a proven survivor. Something of a prodigal son of the Theo Epstein regime in Boston, Lester was the key cog in trades for both Alex Rodriguez and Josh Beckett. Epstein is famously keen on knowing when not to pull the trigger, and it appeared he knew precisely what he had.

Lester rewarded his front office by developing into one of the best young pitchers that baseball had seen in years, culminating in his part of a merciless thrashing of the Rockies in the 2007 World Series. (I get it, there were three saves in the series, but the Rockies led for all of four innings the entire series. It was hard to watch.)

What Epstein didn’t know was that something sinister lurked within his prized-ace body. Thanks largely to the most timely back injury in the history of baseball, Lester was quickly diagnosed and subsequently treated for Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma.  As if beating cancer and continuing on with an athletic career wasn’t enough for Lester, he followed up his bump in the road with multiple Cy Young Award contending seasons and two more World Series victories for good measure. Lester’s place in baseball history is relatively secure right now, and it’s tough to quantify every inch he fought for just to get there.

Jose Quintana is a proven survivor. Something of a prodigal son of the Kenny Williams regi…wait. Wait no, none of this is right. Jose Quintana was just a dude.

He was Chris Sale‘s ugly sibling, cast to the side and left to the wolves. In Quintana’s rookie season, Philip Humber threw a perfect game, Jake Peavy was in his first full season for the White Sox, Francisco Liriano was the stellar late season acquisition, and Gavin Floyd was classically being 60 percent as good as Gavin Floyd should have been.

But there Quintana was every fifth game giving the White Sox a solid chance to win. And there the White Sox were, pissing away every start.

It took four years of stellar performance and dismal results to even have enough information to make an accurate judgment on him. He was not only a pretty good pitcher, he might be one of the best pitchers in baseball.

You see, Jose Quintana is a survivor. He has endured one of the most abusive sports unions that we’ve ever witnessed. You’re not supposed to lose one hitters. You’re not supposed to have 92 career decisions on 951 (!!!) career innings pitched. Calculators read “Lol” when you start crunching Quintana’s numbers.

30 years ago, teams would have made an overnight dynasty picking up a guy like Jose Quintana for scraps. Fortunately for him (for once), the numbers he puts up are the ones people pay for these days. Are those numbers good enough to put him toe to toe with the ace of the juggernaut across town? Guess we’re going to find out together.

Standard Stats

Let’s start with the obvious, Jon Lester is five years older than Jose Quintana. While we could project Quintana’s numbers out to age 32, It’s be more reasonable to compare each pitcher through age 27. This inherently works to Lester’s advantage, as his 2012 season is the worst of his career. (stats wise, probably not in practice. It wasn’t…cancer bad).

Wins and Losses: Jon Lester (Six Seasons) 76-34 over 958 IPJose Quintana (Five Seasons) 46-46 over 951 IP

ERA: Jon Lester (Six Seasons) 3.53Jose Quintana (Five Seasons) 3.41

Strikeouts: Jon Lester (Six Seasons) 8.40 K/9 Jose Quintana (Five Seasons) 7.39 K/9

Many questions can be surmised from this first set, most notably…where the hell did 17 games of Quintana’s career go? Jon Lester is the more dominant pitcher based on this evidence, averaging almost exactly one strikeout more per nine innings, which is no small feat when extrapolated over 958 innings.

It’s the kind of number you would expect someone with Lester’s reputation to have- high enough to always keep hitters honest, but not so high as to suggest that his game relies upon it.

Advanced Stats

I don’t think anyone would confuse the late 2000’s Red Sox or the last five White Sox teams for the 2015 Royals defensively, but these numbers don’t give us concrete proof of fielder independent pitching. You know what number will though? Fielder-Independent Pitching!

Fielder Independent Pitching

Year      Lester       Quintana

22            4.56                N/A

23            5.24                4.23

24            3.64                3.82

25            3.15                2.81

26            3.13                3.18

27            3.83                3.56

Now we’re getting into some fun territory. It would appear that Quintana has thus far gotten the better of Lester, but it’s critical to consider the competition that each pitcher faced. Jon Lester came up in a loaded American League East that featured perennially good/great Rays and Yankees teams, including a stellar 2008 Rays team, and a historically good 2009 Yankees squad.

Quintana’s career has so far largely been spent in a division dominated by defensive Royals teams, solid Tigers pitching staffs, and a half decade of Minnesota misery. Quintana has had fewer quality hitters in his division putting balls in play over the respective five year span than Lester did. It is difficult to appropriately qualify how lucky either pitcher has been over a full season. What we can do however, is at least know how lucky they are relative to themselves. Enter..

xFIP (Expected Fielder Independent Pitching)

xFIP is designed to qualify what a player’s Fielder Independent Pitching should be, assuming 10.5 percent (The league average for sake of calculated consistency) of fly-balls are home runs. xFIP tells a slightly different story.

Expected Fielder Independent Pitching

Year     Lester        Quintana

22            5.10                N/A

23            4.97                4.33

24            4.02                3.86

25            3.09                3.37

26            3.18                3.51

27            3.62                4.03

Both pitchers’ expected numbers are very close to their actual numbers, but each pitcher trends in opposite directions toward the end of the sample. I would hesitate to suggest that Quintana has been lucky in his last two seasons, because we all know full well that hasn’t been the case. What we can collect from this however, is that he hasn’t had the marked improvement that his base numbers would have you believe. He’s the same pitcher he’s always been, a damn good one with a five year pedigree of consistency.

The Verdict

So who is the better pitcher? It depends where you fall on the age argument. Yes, Lester is five years older than Quintana, and if assembling a team with a view for the future, you would almost certainly take the younger option. Jon Lester just had perhaps the best season of his career at age 32, and those five extra years he has on Quintana have almost all been quality.

That said, Quintana has evidenced that he won’t just be a top 20 pitcher in baseball, but that he has been for essentially his entire career. People with this type of consistency very rarely take a statistical nosedive, and if he truly is a close comp to Jon Lester, his best years are in front of him.

These two might very well have identical careers ability wise, but as far as which one I would take for the 2017 season, Lester would narrowly get the nod. Quintana seems primed for a top-five Cy Young season, but Lester’s nearly impeccable 2016 season indicates that he is a hall of fame level player who is still firmly inside of his prime.

It looks like Quintana will be second fiddle in Chicago for at least one more year. Just don’t be surprised if that’s no longer the case in 2018.


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