Why former Red Sox ace Jon Lester should be a Hall of Famer
Why Red Sox legend Jon Lester should be a Hall of Famer
Former Boston Red Sox ace Jon Lester called it a career on Wednesday after 16 terrific seasons in the big leagues. A three-time World Series champion, Lester was the ultimate workhouse, logging 170 innings in twelve straight seasons. During that span, Lester averaged 15 wins a season, made five All-Star teams, and finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting four times.
Lester upped his game even further in the postseason, as there were few better when the lights were brightest than the big lefty. His 2.51 postseason ERA is the tenth-best mark all-time among pitchers with at least ten starts. His World Series resume is even more impressive, as he won four of his decisions with a sparkling 1.77 ERA.
As is the case when a great player retires, many writers and fans want to immediately evaluate their Hall of Fame odds, even if they won’t be on the ballot for six years. Unfortunately, I am no different. So let’s dive in: Should Jon Lester be a Hall of Famer?
By conventional measures, the answer would be no. If elected, Lester’s 44.2 WAR would be the eleventh-lowest of any starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame, while his 3.66 ERA would be the fifth-highest. His 200 wins are also well below Hall of Fame standards.
None of this is to say Lester was a subpar regular season pitcher. Far from it, in fact. He finished in the top ten in the league in strikeouts and ERA five times each, while his 179 wins from 2008 to 2019 were bested only by Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander. He was also a far more dominant pitcher than you would expect from a workhouse lefty, as his 2294 strikeouts rank ninth among pitchers this century.
It is also important to put Lester’s career numbers in context. His seemingly bloated ERA looks worse because he pitched in a high run-scoring environment in the hitter-friendly ballparks of the AL East. His 117 ERA+, which adjusts for those factors, is higher than 22 Hall of Famers, including Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, and Phil Niekro.
His win total is also more impressive than it appears at first glance. As reliever usage increases, starters are throwing fewer innings than ever before, leading to decreased wins totals even from the best pitchers. Of the 75 highest single-season win total of the live-ball era, only two have occurred since 2000.
300 wins used to be the benchmark for Hall of Fame starting pitchers, but only four pitchers have won that many this century. 200 wins is now viewed to be the new benchmark for a Hall of Fame starting pitcher. In this new standard of pitching, Lester meets the mark. Over the span of his career, only sure-fire Hall of Famers Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke won more games.
Even with his regular-season numbers put into historical context, Lester still falls short of what many consider to be Hall of Fame numbers. It’s his postseason resume, however, that makes him worthy of Cooperstown. Lester first established himself as a great clutch pitcher in his rookie season when his 5.2 shutout innings clinched the 2007 World Series title for the Red Sox. Lester continued dominating over the next two postseasons, pitching to a 2.76 ERA over five starts even while the Red Sox fell short of the World Series each year.
Lester truly became a Boston legend in the 2013 World Series. In leading the Red Sox to their third World Series title in ten years, Lester won four of his five starts that postseason, allowing two or fewer runs in each outing. If not for an all-time performance from David Ortiz, Lester would have easily taken home World Series MVP, as he allowed just one run over 15.1 incredible innings against the Cardinals.
Lester was traded to the Athletics the following July and signed with the Cubs that offseason seeking to break their 107-year World Series title drought. After a mediocre performance (4.50 ERA) in the 2015 playoffs, Lester fulfilled his promise and led the Cubs to the 2016 World Series title. He kicked off the playoffs with eight innings of shutout ball against the Giants in the NLDS, then won both of his starts against the Dodgers in the NLCS, allowing a combined two runs in the process. His performance slipped a bit in the World Series, but his six innings of two-run ball in Game 5 allowed the Cubs to extend the series, and his three innings of relief in Game 7 on two day’s rest played a crucial part in the Cubs extra-inning victory.
What makes Lester’s postseason resume so great was his ability to work deep into games. Since his debut in 2008, only Verlander has more postseason outings of seven or more innings. Yet even the great Verlander can’t measure up to Lester’s postseason greatness, as his World Series ERA is over two and a half runs higher than the former Red Sox ace. Simply put, there is no pitching of this generation who was better in the postseason than Lester.
The best comparison for Lester may be recent Hall of Fame inductee Jack Morris. Morris has a similar profile to Lester: Relatively measly regular-season numbers but a legacy as one of the best postseason pitchers of all time. Like Lester, Morris was an ace for two different World Series-winning teams, leading both the 1984 Tigers and the 1991 Twins to titles. Morris also had the greatest single-game postseason performance of all time, throwing ten shutout innings in Game 7 of the ’91 series to clinch the title.
Yet as revered as Morris’ postseason legacy is, his numbers pale in comparison to Lester’s, whose postseason ERA is over 1.30 points lower. While Morris undoubtedly had some legendary performances, he also threw some absolute stinkers. Morris allowed four or more runs in 38% of his postseason starts, a far greater percentage than Lester (13%).
Lester was also far better than Morris in the regular season:
Winning Percentage: Morris .631, Lester .5577
ERA: Morris 3.90, Lester 3.66
K/9: Morris 5.8, Lester 8.2
BB/9: Morris 3.3, Lester 2.9
WAR: Morris 43.5, Lester 44.2
7-Year Peak WAR: Morris 32.5, Lester 34.6
JAWS: Morris 38.0, 39.4
Lester had Morris beat in nearly every statistical category. While Morris isn’t exactly the cream of the crop Hall of Famer, his recent induction sets an important precedent for Lester’s candidacy.
Another popular comparison to Lester is Andy Pettitte, the former Yankee great with a similar profile as a durable, innings-eating lefty. Despite his connection to PEDS, Pettitte received 13.7% last year in his third year of eligibility. Yet Pettitte’s numbers, both in the regular season and postseason, pale in comparison to Lester’s.
Though Pettitte has the much higher WAR and baseline counting numbers, his rate stats are not nearly as good. Lester has him beat in ERA (3.66 to 3.85), K/9 (8.2 to 6.6), and winning percentage (.631 to .626). He also earned two more All-Star appearances and edges Pettitte narrowly in Peak WAR (34.6 to 34.1).
Like Lester, Pettitte also has a reputation as one of the best postseason pitchers of his time. No pitcher can top his 19 career postseason victories or 276.2 innings, and his strikeout total (183) and win probability added (3.5) rank in the top 5 all-time.
Pettitte’s numbers, however, are mainly a result of his teams making the postseason in sixteen of his eighteen seasons. On a rate basis, Lester again has the edge, besting him in both ERA (2.51 to 3.81) and quality start percentage (72% to 63%). If Pettitte, with a PED stain to his name, is reaching double-digits in voting, there is no reason that Lester shouldn’t receive serious consideration when his name appears on the ballot.
The main reason Lester should be a Hall of Famer goes far beyond the numbers. Few pitchers have had a more significant impact on two different organizations than Lester. On the Red Sox, he was the rare starting pitcher who was a vocal leader in the locker room, and his durability and toughness, which was first shown when he overcame cancer as a 22-year-old, set the tone for the rest of the organization. Ortiz gets most of the attention for the 2013 championship run, but the Red Sox wouldn’t have a chance without Lester’s big game pitching performances.
In Chicago, his legacy may have been even greater. Before Lester signed with them following a last-place 2014 season, the Cubs had not won a playoff game in 11 years or a World Series in 107 years. Lester completely re-established the culture, providing veteran leadership and experience to a team filled with youngsters. The Cubs made it back to the playoffs in Lester’s very first season before breaking the so-called curse a year later. In the center of it all was Lester, who won a combined 22 games during that championship team.
There is no one path to Cooperstown. Hall of Fame experts may look at Lester’s surface-level statistics and swiftly dismiss his case, but to do so would be a disservice to the immense legacy Lester left on the game. While Pettitte, Morris, and others get credit as the best postseason pitcher of their time, it was Lester who made the greatest impact on the biggest stage. That postseason domination, along with his consistency, durability, and leadership, overcome whatever statistical deficiency Lester may have.
It may be six years before Lester’s name first appears on the ballot, but the answer is already clear: He’s a Hall of Famer.