Is Jon Lester a Hall of Famer? In the wake of the lefthander’s retirement, speculation on that topic commenced about a 16-year big leaguer who finished his career with a 200-117 record, 3.66 ERA, five All-Star appearances, a no-hitter, and a dazzling postseason record that helped guide three teams to championships.
Yet to answer that question, it’s necessary to examine a broader one: How do you define a Hall of Fame starting pitcher? One day before the news of his retirement, Lester mulled that.
He identified CC Sabathia, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander as shoo-ins. But Lester also wondered whether the longevity, durability, and consistency of peers such as Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson was being properly appreciated.
“There’s two different types of Hall of Famers. I think there’s the people that obviously are the 1-percenters, the top-of-the-top guys that just dominate for years,” said Lester. “And then I think there’s the second-tier Hall of Famers that may not necessarily get in on the first ballot, but I think deserve to be in, the Mark Buehrles and Tim Hudsons that may not necessarily have dominated their entire career, but for 20 years or 18 years or whatever they were consistently above good.”
But based on vote tracking by Ryan Thibodaux, Buehrle (214-160, 3.81 ERA, 117 ERA+, 3,283⅓ innings) and Hudson (222-133, 120 ERA+, 3.49 ERA, 3,126⅔ innings) may both fall shy of the 5 percent voting standard that would keep them on the ballot next year. Same goes for two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who will join multi-Cy guys Johan Santana, Bret Saberhagen, and Denny McLain as non-Hall of Famers.
Andy Pettitte is likely to stay on the ballot for a fifth year, but with just over 10 percent of the first 165 votes tracked by Thibodaux in his favor, the lefthander faces little likelihood of induction. Meanwhile, after 10 controversy-filled years of voting, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling will drop off the Hall of Fame ballots mailed to BBWAA voters next November.
The question of starting pitchers’ Cooperstown credentials has always been a thorny one, with rotation members held to almost impossible standards for decades. After the BBWAA elected six pitchers with fewer than 300 wins to the Hall between 1981-91, that plateau reemerged as a prerequisite from 1992 through 2010, when the entity didn’t elect a single starting pitcher with fewer than 300 victories to the Hall.
While seven pitchers have been elected by the BBWAA since 2014 (Tom Glavine, Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, and John Smoltz), none are likely to sniff consideration until Sabathia becomes eligible in 2025.
So, what does it take to be a Hall of Famer? Will Lester or Cole Hamels merit election? Will a brightly and quickly burning candle such as two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber merit consideration?
How much more does Chris Sale — with seven All-Star nods and seven top-six Cy finishes, and a 114-74 record with a 3.03 career ERA, as well as one of the highest strikeout rates in history — need to do to get to Cooperstown? For that matter, how will the Hall-worthiness of pitchers who are just now reaching the big leagues be judged?
Until Clemens, 300 wins resulted in automatic induction — but that standard hearkens to the earliest days of the game, when starting pitchers took the ball and didn’t give it up unless someone tore a limb from their body, and sometimes, not even then. The pitcher’s claim of a “decision” seemed appropriate.
“My father used to tell me when I was growing up, ‘You’re not telling anyone you can’t pitch. When you go in there, you better stay in there. You better finish the game,’ ” reflected Luis Tiant (229-172). “I finished 187 games. That’s a lot of games. It’s never going to happen again.”
Three pitchers tied for the major league lead with three complete games last year. It’s no longer just nine-inning outings that are rarities. Increasingly, pitchers don’t even last the five or six innings needed to be in line for a win. In 2021, just 27.7 percent of starts resulted in a pitcher being credited for a victory.
Whereas it used to be that a starter would get a “W” roughly four out of every nine trips to the mound at the start of the 20th century, that’s the case for just over one out of every four starts now — in an age of bullpen games and openers and two-times-through-the-order before handing the baton to a succession of overpowering relievers.
Put another way: Adjusting for the diminished frequency of starts resulting in wins, the equivalent of 300 wins in 1901-10 would be 185 starting pitcher victories, based on how pitchers were deployed.
Of course, “wins” and “losses” were already imperfect statistics for judging pitcher performance based on elements beyond the pitcher’s control, including offensive support and the defense behind him. Still, the shifting nature of the starting pitcher’s role, which will affect other cumulative stats such as WAR, innings, and strikeouts, will make it ever more difficult to use current Hall members as a basis for judging future Hall-worthiness.
“Are you going to judge all the modern-day pitchers based on the past or the present, the years they pitched? . . . You can’t compare eras anymore,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. “People are going to have to recalibrate what it takes to be a Hall of Fame pitcher.”
In 2010, at his first All-Star Game, Lester expressed his desire to win 300 games and to be a Hall of Famer. With experience, he laughed at the standards he’d once considered attainable.
“Three hundred wins is I think impossible now,” he said. “Now I feel like you’re only relied upon to get 12, 15 outs. So if that’s the case, heck, 100 wins is unfathomable for some guys. Three hundred is just a whole other stratosphere.”
IN THE BEGINNING
Lester got off to rough start
Jon Lester expressed satisfaction and gratitude at having reached 200 career victories at the end of the 2021 season, which he finished with the Cardinals after a July trade from the Nationals. He suggested the milestone reflected longevity, durability, and the quality of his teams.
“That helps motivate you to stay accountable for what you need to do on a day-to-day basis to try and go out and win,” he said.
Lester’s retirement makes it fascinating to think back to the beginning of his career. It was 20 years ago that the Red Sox drafted him after he fell to the second round out of high school over signability concerns and inconsistency as a senior. He signed late and appeared in just one game at the end of the minor league season with the rookie Gulf Coast League Red Sox.
Lester, working on a 25-pitch limit, allowed six runs (one earned) while recording two outs before manager John Sanders pulled him.
“He was nerved up, overthrowing,” said Sanders. “I walked out and when I got to the dirt, I remember distinctly, I clapped my hands and said, ‘Johnny, I gotta come get you.’ He said, ‘No, Skip, no. That’s never happened to me.’ I said, ‘I think you’re just a little bit worked up over this moment. That’s OK. There’s gonna be a lot of starts and finishes for you in the big leagues.’ And he looked at me and he started grinning.”
Lester fulfilled that prophecy, though not without overcoming his cancer diagnosis and treatment in his rookie season of 2006. At that point, as much as there was relief that his form of lymphoma was treatable, there was considerable uncertainty about his future and what the cancer treatment might mean for his career.
But by the end of 2007, when Lester closed out the World Series with a victory over the Rockies in Game 4, the view of his elite potential had returned. That made him a target of the Twins in conversations about a trade that would have sent Johan Santana to Boston.
“I said, ‘No way! Don’t do that!’ ” former Sox pitching coach and manager John Farrell recalled.
The faith of Farrell and the team was soon rewarded when Lester broke through in 2008. He arrived as a star with his no-hitter against the Royals on May 19.
“In the bullpen prior to the game, he threw, like, six pitches off the back wall getting loose,” laughed Farrell. “I remember we just had a brief conversation like, ‘Hey, you’re just trying to get loose, don’t worry about where it’s going.’ Well, he goes out and throws the no-hitter. It was a dominating performance, like many others that he had.
“I just look at a guy who’s got incredible personal resolve. To come back from and beat cancer and to develop into one of the game’s best pitchers, that’s no small feat. And to thrive in Boston I think speaks to how committed and concentrated he was to being the best possible personal pitcher that he ended up being.
“I just marvel at the physical abilities as well as the commitment that he put in . . . He never took a shortcut in anything. He logged the time, put in the work, and obviously reaped the benefits.”
With Lester’s retirement, one of the great Red Sox prospect groups in generations may be at the end of its run. In 2005, Lester was one of seven players on the Double A Portland Sea Dogs that went on to have big league careers of at least 10 seasons: Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, Jonathan Papelbon, David Murphy, Brandon Moss, and Aníbal Sánchez.
Sánchez — traded from the Sox to the Marlins with Ramirez in the Josh Beckett deal after that season — is the only active player from that team. He’s deciding whether to retire or pursue a comeback.
Sánchez (the American League ERA champion in 2013) struggled in 2020 and then sat out the 2021 campaign when he couldn’t find a big league offer. According to a major league source, he’s on the fence about retirement but felt rejuvenated after the time off, throwing with what appears to be more velocity than in recent years. In the next couple of weeks, he’ll throw in front of a scout with a radar gun to decide whether to attempt another shot at the big leagues.
Camden Yards making changes
The opening of Camden Yards in 1992 ushered an era of retro, baseball-only ballparks that transformed the aesthetics of the game and the fan experience. Cozy outfield dimensions — a product of where the park was built (the warehouse in right necessarily squeezed the field in that direction, resulting in the decision to install a high wall and scoreboard) and a desire to get fans low and close to the field.
“Frank Robinson was able to speak publicly, as well as with us in meetings, about how important it was as a player to have that energy of the fans and what a difference it made when fans were close to the playing field,” recalled Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles’ vice president of planning and development from 1989-94.
With the fence in left-center at 364 feet from home plate, the park immediately became a haven for homers. Low, 7-foot fences (a nod to Camden’s predecessor, Memorial Stadium) — designed for fan proximity and to generate excitement from home run robberies — further contributed to Camden’s status as a launching pad.
This past week, the Orioles announced plans to make the outfield more spacious, moving back the fences in left-center and raising them to more closely approximate PNC Field in Pittsburgh. General manager Mike Elias told reporters that the team wanted to make the park play more evenly for pitchers and hitters, with plans to remove about 1,000 seats before Camden opens for its 30th anniversary March 31.
“[Camden Yards] is 30 years old, but it is an absolute masterpiece,” said Elias. “But you’ve got to renovate and reinvest.”
Whether doing so will detract from Camden’s “masterpiece” status remains to be seen.
Tiant discusses Hall of Fame hero
While the baseball world awaits word on which players — if any — the BBWAA elected to the Hall of Fame, Luis Tiant reflected on the election by the Golden Days Era Committee of Minnie Miñoso, who will be part of the Hall’s 2022 class.
“He was one of my heroes. I had two heroes — Mickey [Mantle] and Minnie,” said Tiant.
Tiant’s father (also Luis) was Miñoso’s first roommate when both played for the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues in 1946-47, Miñoso as a 20-year-old and the elder Tiant as a 39-year veteran. The younger Tiant lovingly remembered being present for conversations on his porch between the two.
Over nearly 2,000 big league games — most with the White Sox — Miñoso, a nine-time All-Star, emerged as a force, hitting .299/.387/.461 with 195 homers. Yet while Tiant saw the recognition as deserved, he acknowledged that it “breaks my heart” that the election came after Miñoso died at age 89 in 2015.
“Why wait until you die [for election]?” asked Tiant.
Helton trade wasn’t to be
At a time when retired Rockies first baseman Todd Helton is gaining support for the Hall of Fame, it’s worth recalling that the Red Sox were once in serious conversations with Colorado to acquire him. After the 2006 season, the teams were in advanced talks for a package that would have sent Mike Lowell and others to Colorado. But, according to former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd, Helton — who had a full no-trade clause — didn’t want to leave Colorado.
He stayed and helped lead the Rockies to their first and only World Series appearance. But they got swept by the Red Sox, with Lowell being named World Series MVP.
“Crazy game,” O’Dowd texted.
While Major League Baseball and the Players Association will have to negotiate COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 season, MLB doesn’t need to negotiate protocols for minor leaguers who aren’t on 40-man rosters. (Those players are not represented by the Players Association, and thus not party to collective bargaining between MLB and the MLBPA.) MLB required players in the Arizona Fall League to be vaccinated but has yet to issue a mandate requiring vaccinations for 2022. The league is still working through what potential vaccine requirements for minor leaguers might look like, while encouraging teams and players to stay up to date on vaccinations and boosters in the interim given the possibility of forthcoming requirements. Last year, all Red Sox affiliates except for Triple A Worcester reached at least an 85 percent vaccination rate . . . The independent Atlantic League announced this past week that it would end its use of automated balls and strikes (ABS, or more colloquially, “robo-umps”) and shelve its experiment of placing the rubber 61 feet, 6 inches from home plate. ABS technology was used in the Arizona Fall League and is expected to be deployed in some minor leagues this year. One 2021 minor league experiment that will spread to additional levels: The 15-second pitch clock employed in Low-A West (17 seconds with runners on base) that contributed to 21 minutes lopped off average game times is expected to see wider play in 2022 . . . Scott Eshbach, the son of longtime Portland Sea Dogs employee Charlie Eshbach, is suffering from liver failure and requires a donor to survive. The family has set up a Facebook page (“Find Scott a Liver”) in search of a potential donor age 18-60 with Type O blood . . . Happy birthday, Dave Stapleton (68). As much as he’s remembered for remaining on the bench in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (after having been a pinch runner/defensive replacement at first base 25 times in the regular season and seven more in the postseason that year), Stapleton was the 1980 AL runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting, and his six-position versatility might have been coveted in today’s game . . . Sunday also marks the birthday of Jimmy Collins, the Hall of Fame third baseman and manager who led the Red Sox (then the Americans) to triumph in the first World Series in 1903. Collins was not only a star player for two Boston teams (the National League’s Beaneaters from 1895-1900 before jumping to the newly formed AL) but also occupied a fascinating position in early salary battles between players and owners.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.