Saturday, January 29, 2022

Is Jon Lester a Hall of Famer? How postseason greatness gives him a chance at Cooperstown

Too early? Nah, it’s never too early. 

Jon Lester announced his retirement on Wednesday. The sturdy lefty has been a fixture in important rotations in baseball for a while. It’s been an awful long time since we went into a season not thinking about him, even if he was on the periphery (like last year). 

It’s only natural to do two things when a career like this ends. First off, look back and appreciate all the memories this player provided. There were plenty with Lester, particularly with two specific fan bases. Secondly, ask the question on whether or not he’s a Hall of Famer. Let’s dig into the latter. 

Right off the top, Lester’s case isn’t a good one if we look through the lens of only his regular-season JAWS. He’s 149th in JAWS among starting pitchers. There are 66 starters currently in the Hall of Fame, and even if we loop in active players like Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer along with hopefuls like CC Sabathia and veteran committee candidates like Dave Stieb, Kevin Brown and Luis Tiant, we still aren’t even halfway to Lester. 

Now, Lester’s case is more that of a compiler than peak, so maybe WAR treats him better? Nope. He’s 153rd there. 

This is to say that Lester’s case is the exact opposite of some of the recent new-school inductees (such as Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and even trickling back to Bert Blyleven — though he shouldn’t have needed such a push). 

No, Lester’s case is built on the strength of other things. It isn’t the Hall of WAR or even Hall of Stats, as we know. There are stories to be told about every player and each Hall of Famer doesn’t have to look the same. There’s room for all-timers like Walter Johnson just as there is room for the likes of Jack Morris and Catfish Hunter (both of whom trail Lester in WAR and JAWS, by the way). 

Lester’s story is compelling, too. After fighting cancer, he went on to have a career that saw him serve as the ace of both Red Sox and Cubs World Series championship teams. Think about if we had heard that one 20 years ago? That moves the needle a bit, no? 

Lester debuted in 2006 with the Red Sox at age 22, but his season was cut short due to a discovery that he had a treatable form of lymphoma. He returned with a clean bill of health in 2007. He would throw 5 2/3 scoreless innings in Coors Field in Game 4 to close down a sweep of the Rockies for the 2007 World Series title. 

For the next six seasons, Lester was a fixture in the Red Sox rotation, going 89-54 with a 3.65 ERA (120 ERA+). He was a workhorse, too, topping 200 innings five times and 190 in all six. The culmination of that span was the 2013 World Series title. Lester had a 1.56 ERA in five starts that postseason, winning his Games 1 and 5 starts in the World Series. 

The 2014 season was his peak, to that point, on an individual basis. He posted a career-best 2.46 ERA and career-best 1.10 WHIP with 220 strikeouts. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He was also set to hit free agency after the season and once the Red Sox weren’t contending, the trade rumors swirled along with talk of an extension. The Red Sox decided to trade him to the A’s and then try to bring him back in the offseason. 

It didn’t work. Instead, Lester signed to be the staff ace of the up-and-coming Cubs. They were only 73-89 the previous season, so while there was promise, Lester still took a risk. It paid off. In 2015, they went to the NLCS after a 97-win regular season. In 2016, they won the World Series. 

Lester finished second in NL Cy Young voting that season after going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, ultimately the best season of his career. He threw eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 win in Game 1 of the NLDS. He was co-MVP of the NLCS after allowing two runs on nine hits in 13 innings. He got the win in Game 5 to give the Cubs a 3-2 series lead heading home, when they were facing Kershaw in Game 6. He grabbed the win in Game 5 of the World Series to stave off elimination. Then he came on in relief on two days’ rest in Game 7 to provide excellent work in three innings, handing the ball off to closer Aroldis Chapman with the team in position to win. 

It was his signature season. And the Cubs had won their first World Series title since 1908. Jon Lester was the single best and most important free-agent signing in franchise history. 

See? Even the condensed version is a hell of a story. 

In all, Lester finished his regular season career with a 200-117 record. He had a 3.66 ERA (117 ERA+) and 1.28 WHIP. He struck out 2,488 batters in 2,740 innings. He was a five-time All-Star with four top-10 Cy Young finishes which includes two fourth-place finishes and one runner-up. In an era when pitchers were going over 200 innings fewer and fewer times per season, Lester had eight 200-inning campaigns. He went over 180 innings 11 straight seasons. 

His top five statistical similars include a Hall of Famer (Roy Halladay) and one headed that way (Verlander). He is 40th in career strikeouts. 

I don’t think anyone would doubt he’s short of the Hall on the regular season alone, but in the postseason he had a 2.51 ERA in 154 innings with a 1.02 WHIP. He’s ninth career in both playoff innings and strikeouts. In six career World Series appearances, he went 4-1 with a 1.77 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 34 strikeouts against eight walks in 35 2/3 innings. He won three rings, and on two of those teams he was the backbone of the rotation. Will that and his story push him up a bit? 

My hunch is on the BBWAA vote, we’re moving more away from stories and more toward the statistical side, though there will always be room for bonus points on the postseason stats and perhaps the story with Lester gets him in the conversation. 

If I had to bet, he gets 10 years on the BBWAA vote and falls off, but then a veterans committee at some point puts him in. There have been far bigger crimes in Cooperstown. Lester is a player who should be remembered for generations, even if his stats don’t scream “Hall of Famer.” 

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