Over the last few weeks, the Dodgers have been one of the primary suitors linked to a potential David Price trade, along with the Mariners and Cardinals. However, the Rays hot streak has made Price’s availability an open question, and now, perhaps the more likely scenario is that the team could trade for Jon Lester instead. The Red Sox playoff odds are down to about 3%, and Lester has publicly said that he won’t hold it against the team if they trade when it comes to offseason negotiations for a new contract. Given those two variables, trading Lester makes a lot of sense, and the Dodgers are apparently quite interested in him as well.
I’d like to make a suggestion to Ned Coletti, however: you don’t need to do it. In fact, you probably shouldn’t.
Lester and Price are both terrific pitchers, and certainly any team that adds either one would instantly be a better team than they were before. This isn’t an argument about either one being overrated. They’re really good. The Dodgers simply don’t really need either one.
As it stands, our Playoff Odds model has the as 75% favorites to win the NL West, because they have a game and a half lead over the Giants and our forecasts think the Dodgers are just the better team. If you don’t like using forecast data, though, our season-to-date stats mode — which only accounts for the team’s performance this season — has the Dodgers at about 65% favorites tow in the NL West. Without making a massive upgrade, the Dodgers odds of winning the division are something like 2-in-3 or 3-in-4.
Of course, winning the division is a very valuable outcome now that the Wild Card game exists, and the Dodgers should be interested in minimizing their chances of falling behind San Francisco and having to try to play their way into the division series. Having strong playoff odds in late July is reason to make an upgrade, not a reason to avoid making one. But the Dodgers are extremely likely to make the postseason — both modes give them an 17-18% chance of making the Wild Card game, so their playoff odds are 85% to 95% — and should be looking to make upgrades that will not only get them to October, but help them once they are there. And while both Lester and Price are terrific, it’s not entirely clear that having either one would be the kind of upgrade that would justify the cost of their acquisition.
Let’s start with the scenarios where they don’t win their division and are forced to play in the Wild Card game. We’re talking about a 1-in-6 chance, or something to that effect, but then we have to drill that down to the odds that either Price or Lester would actually pitch in that game. Obviously, the Dodgers would throw Kershaw in that game if he was available, and they might throw Greinke if the other team is better at hitting lefties than righties. Depending on how the team’s rotation shook out and the strengths of the opponent, Price or Lester might not even pitch in that game.
If that scenario shook out, and the team had given up significant future assets to acquire either player, there’s a real chance that the team could lose the Wild Card game without either player taking the field in the postseason. Sure, a Dodgers team with Kershaw on the mound is going to be something like a 55% to 60% favorite over almost any other team they play, especially if the game is in LA, but that leaves a large percentage of outcomes where the Dodgers lose that game and their season ends. And especially with a guy like Lester, you probably don’t want to mortgage the farm for the right to have him sit on the bench and watch the team lose the Wild Card game.
But the Dodgers probably aren’t going to be in that position. Odds are better than they’re going to win the division, or if they do make the Wild Card game, they’ll win it and advance to the division series. Our playoff odds model gives them an 85% chance of advancing to the NLDS, with only the Nationals and Tigers having better odds of reaching the real playoffs. The Dodgers should be planning their roster for an extended playoff series, not just a single elimination game.
But I’m not even sure Lester or Price is a dramatic upgrade there either. Let’s start with the best of five round, and assume that the Dodgers win the division, giving them time to setup their playoff roster by avoiding the Wild Card game. Games 1 and 5 belong to Kershaw, without any controversy. So the only question then is who pitches the middle three games.
Without acquiring another frontline starter, the current setup would be something like Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Josh Beckett. Add Price or Lester, and you’re effectively using them to replace Beckett in that series rotation. What’s the difference between Jon Lester and Josh Beckett in one game?
Lester currently projects as a 3.50 ERA pitcher in the AL East, so move him to the NL West, and you probably have something like a 3.25 ERA pitcher. Beckett projects as a 3.90 ERA guy, so clearly, it’s an upgrade. But of course, neither pitcher is going to be asked to throw nine innings a playoff game, so we’re really looking at their difference over roughly six innings. In Beckett’s case, he’s probably not even likely to be asked to get six in a playoff game, so it’s really more like six innings of Lester versus four innings of Beckett and two innings of the Dodgers bullpen. But, we’ll just keep it simple and stick with six innings of each starter.
Overall, that’s about a .43 runs per game difference in starting Lester instead of Beckett. Using the pythagenpat formula, we can see how that translates into a change in expected winning percentage. Let’s set the Dodgers assumed runs per game to 4.3 — the number doesn’t really matter, but that’s their current BaseRuns expectation — and then compare their expected winning percentage with both starters. With Lester pitching six innings, a 3.25 ERA projection would equal 2.16 runs allowed over that span, and for the sake or this exercise, we’ll assume the Dodgers bullpen would allow one run over three innings after both pitchers leave, so the total forecast for the Dodgers-in-Lester-start is 3.16 runs allowed per game.
Pythagenpat suggests that, at 4.3 runs scored per game and 3.2 runs allowed per game, the Dodgers would be expected to win something like 63.3% of the games Lester starts for them. That’s really good, because he’s good and they’re good. But they’re still good when Beckett pitches too, so replacing Lester with Beckett only pushes the expected winning percentage down to 57.8%. The difference between having a 3.25 ERA starter and a 3.90 ERA starter is about a 5.5% change in expected winning percentage. And that’s in one game of a five game series. The overall improvement in winning the NLDS by swapping out Beckett for Lester is along the lines of a percentage point. Or maybe two percentage points if you think that Beckett would make an amazing reliever and also include the bump the team would get from having him come out of the bullpen for the rest of the series.
Even in a best of seven series, where Lester would get to make two starts, it’s not clear that his presence would be a huge upgrade even then, because you’re still only removing one Josh Beckett start. The second start would come from Hyun-Jin Ryu, who would take over the #4 starter role and only get one start in a seven game series. Lester is better than Ryu, but not Ryu is a lot better than Beckett, and the improvement of odds in a game where you swap out Ryu for Lester is more along the lines of 2%.
I’ve been using Lester as an example, but the results are mostly the same with Price. He’s better, and so the upgrade is more significant, but the again, the cost will be much larger with Price than Lester as well. And the same basic concept holds there too; he’s much better than Beckett, but Beckett’s only pitching one game in a playoff series, even one that goes seven games.
The Dodgers should try to get better, because they have a real chance to win this year, and Clayton Kershaw might not be this version of Clayton Kershaw forever. Hanley Ramirez is a free agent this winter. Greinke has an opt-out after next year. The Dodgers have a window and should go for it, but going for it should result in pursuing players that are significant upgrades. While starters are more valuable than relievers, the Dodgers current pitching staff suggests that the upgrade from swapping out Brian Wilson and Chris Perez with ace reliever types is probably just as large, and maybe larger, as swapping out Beckett for a guy like Lester.
Instead of trying to upgrade their starting pitching, they should be talking to the Red Sox about Andrew Miller and Koji Uehara. Or if they really want to throw their financial muscle around, go take Jonathan Papelbon off the Phillies hands. They have a couple of replacement level setup guys who could easily be swapped out for actual effective relief aces, and that upgrade won’t cost them Joc Pederson or Corey Seager.
Lester or Price make a lot of sense for a team in win-now mode that doesn’t already have Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu. To acquire either one, the Dodgers would have to outbid teams that have a significantly stronger need for a frontline pitcher. It might be fun to dream about what having three aces in a rotation would be like, but realistically, the Dodgers could get a similar upgrade from just throwing Wilson and Perez overboard and replacing them with a couple of good relief arms.
And if they just really love Jon Lester, well, they can always throw $150 million at him this winter.
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