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Is Jon Lester a Hall of Famer?

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The answer might not be as simple as you think

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Wednesday, we learned that Jon Lester had announced his retirement at age 38, following a stellar 16-year MLB career, six years of which was spent with the Chicago Cubs.

Today I want to pose to you the question in the headline, and don’t automatically say “No,” because I think a case can be made for Jon to be inducted in Cooperstown.

His career numbers include the following: exactly 200 wins (for those who still consider individual pitcher wins important), a 3.66 ERA (117 ERA+), 2,740 innings, 2,488 strikeouts, five All-Star Game nods, three top-four Cy Young Award finishes and 44.3 career bWAR (46.2 fWAR).

In addition, Lester threw a no-hitter against the Royals in 2008 and has three World Series rings, two with the Red Sox and the one you all know about from 2016.

I’ll be the first to admit Jon’s regular-season stats don’t really stack up with what we would normally consider to be Hall of Fame numbers. His baseball-reference page doesn’t have a lot of “black ink,” meaning league-leading figures. He led the AL in strikeouts/nine innings in 2010 (9.7) and led the NL in winning percentage in 2016 (.792) and wins in 2018 (18). Lester’s “gray ink” number is better — that’s a Top 10 finish in his league — where he has 148 “points,” with an “average Hall of Famer” scoring 185. Bill James’ “Hall of Fame Monitor,” defined here, puts him at 98 with that “average Hall of Famer” scoring 100. The HoF Monitor page at bb-ref, linked above, says:

It attempts to assess how likely (not how deserving) an active player is to make the Hall of Fame. Using its rough scale, 100 means a good possibility and 130 is a virtual cinch. It isn’t hard and fast, but it does a pretty good job.

So Jon is close, based on that. Also, there’s this:

And speaking of World Series, where Lester really shines is in his overall postseason performance. He ranks in the top 10 for postseason career innings, games started and strikeouts and is fifth all-time in postseason WPA, and among pitchers who have at least as many postseason innings as Jon (154), his 2.51 ERA tops the list, ahead of present and future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw.

More:

Since the Deadball Era, the only pitchers besides Lester who have thrown at least that many innings in World Series play with a lower ERA are Madison Bumgarner, Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Mariano Rivera and three guys you wouldn’t have expected: George Earnshaw, Bill Hallahan and Monte Pearson.

Beyond all that, there’s the improvement Jon showed in several ways while he was a Cub. He did not have a hit as a batter when he arrived, and went 0-for-22 beginning his Cubs career before his first MLB hit July 6, 2015, oddly enough off his close friend and future teammate John Lackey. His 0-for-66 beginning his career is the worst for any hitter. But after that Lester became a decent hitter — for a pitcher, anyway. After that 0-for-22 Jon hit .131/.187/.196 as a Cub. (Note: That’s pretty bad and I’m glad the DH is likely coming to the NL.) He also hit three home runs and presuming the universal DH does come, Jon’s home run against the Pirates July 13, 2019 [VIDEO] will be the last-ever home run by a Cubs pitcher.

(He’d also be the last pitcher to homer in three consecutive seasons; he did it once each in 2017, 2018 and 2019.)

Jon also worked on his bunting. He was awful at it when he came to the Cubs. But he actually became probably the best bunter on the team, to the point that Joe Maddon trusted him to make this important game-winning squeeze in 2016:

Lester was also a terrible fielder when he came to the Cubs. You surely remember him tossing his glove, with a baseball in it, to Anthony Rizzo for outs more than once.

2015:

2016:

He also wasn’t any good at pickoff plays. That’s one of the reasons the Royals beat Lester’s A’s in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game — the Royals stole several bases off him (and more off other Oakland pitchers).

But he worked on that, too:

Here’s the same play as described on the Cardinals broadcast. Scroll to :31 where Tim McCarver says, “He’s not going to throw to first base.”

All of those things helped make Jon the successful pitcher he was in Chicago.

It’s not a slam dunk, Lester’s Hall of Fame case. My feeling is that the combination of a “Hall of Very Good” regular-season career, his postseason numbers, his three rings and the no-hitter should put him in. It almost certainly won’t happen on the first ballot, and he might have to wait for a Veterans Committee. If I had a Hall vote, I’d absolutely vote for Jon.

What say you?

Poll

Jon Lester and the Hall of Fame...

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    ... he should be elected by the BBWAA on the first ballot
    (56 votes)
  • 46%
    ... he should be elected by the BBWAA after his first year of eligibility
    (225 votes)
  • 18%
    ... he should be elected, but by a Veterans Committee
    (88 votes)
  • 24%
    ... he’s not a Hall of Famer
    (118 votes)
487 votes total Vote Now