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Bob Ryan

Lester left Boston in very good company

Jon Lester isn’t the best lefthander in Red Sox history, Bob Ryan says, but he’s close.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Anyone out there interested in putting Jon Lester’s Red Sox career in perspective?

Let’s put aside, for a moment at least, the messy details of his departure. Of course, the reported Red Sox offer of four years and $70 million was preposterous. Not the four years part. That made sense. But in the context of these times, a pitcher — excuse me, a lefthanded pitcher — of his quality gets more than $17 million and change a year. That was never going to get it done. As to why the Lester reps chose to respond to that offer by not responding, I have no idea.


Jon Lester is a very good contemporary pitcher. He may once again wind up starting Game 1 in a Division Series, an ALCS, and a World Series. He has proven that he can handle the spotlight. There were no, “Yeah, buts . . . ” He is low maintenance, thoroughly professional, and eminently rootable. I wish the Red Sox had found a way to keep him.

And he certainly has a place in Red Sox history.

He is, however, not the best lefthanded pitcher in Red Sox history, as some have been saying these past few days.

I’ve got him slotted at No. 4.

OK, we all know that comparing past generations with this one is tricky and perhaps even futile. The world was different. The game, though recognizable between the lines, was managed and conducted very differently. Pitchers were bred to go nine innings. Once upon a time there were no closers, no set-up men, no LOOGYs. In that respect, the game has changed considerably since the 1970s, or perhaps even the ’80s.

There is no right and wrong, only reasonably informed opinions. But there is no sport in which making these impossible comparisons is more sheer fun. It’s one of the things that gives baseball the clear conversational edge over the other three meat-and-potatoes sports that sit on our sports smorgasbord table.


In that spirit of fun, here goes . . .

5. Dutch Leonard

He pitched for the Red Sox from 1913 through 1918. His W-L was 90-64. Pretty good. But what really gets your attention are his ERAs. Even in that dead-ball world, his ERAs were pretty impressive. You can start in 1914, when he led the league at 0.96. In his six years as a Sox starter his ERAs ranged from 0.96 to 2.72.

He was 2-0 as a World Series starter, beating the Phillies with a three-hitter in 1915 and beating the Brooklyn Robins in Game 4 a year later with a five-hitter. You don’t hear much about him, but he was pretty good and he is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

4. Jon Lester

A glittering career winning percentage of .636 (110-63). We all know he overcame cancer. We all know he went 5⅔ excellent shutout innings against the Rockies in Game 4 of the 2007 World Series and we all know he threw a no-hitter against the Royals on May 19, 2008. We know he has won as many as 19 games in a season and that he was outstanding in the 2013 postseason.

We also know that, the always misleading W’s and L’s aside, he is having his best season. Once again, I wish he were still a member of the Boston Red Sox.


We also know that, thanks to the whys and wherefores of modern baseball, he only has 10 career complete games and three shutouts, one of which happened to be that aforementioned no-hitter. It is not his fault that he can’t boast of gaudy numbers in those categories, as opposed to, for example . . .

3. Mel Parnell

He pitched for the Red Sox, and Red Sox only, from 1947-56. He was 123-75 (.621). He had 113 complete games and 20 shutouts in 232 starts. He had a career ERA of 3.50 with a low of 2.77 in his transcendent season of 1949. That year, he was 25-7 with 27 complete games in 33 starts (39 games) while throwing a league-high 295⅓ innings. Yup, that’s a totally different world than the one inhabited by Jon Lester.

From 1948 through 1953, he was 109-56. He was pretty much done after that, but he had one big bullet left in the chamber, firing a no-hitter against the White Sox on July 14, 1956.

I give him the edge over Lester. You may not.

2. Lefty Grove

Lefty Grove’s reputation was made in Philadelphia. He won 20 or more games seven straight times from 1927 through 1933, highlighted by a totally sick back-to-back record of 59-9 in 1930 and 1931.

But he wasn’t too bad in Boston, either, compiling a 105-62 record from 1934 to 1941. He was a five-time All-Star with the Red Sox. Oh, and he led the league in ERA four times in one five-year stretch while wearing a Boston uniform, to go along with the five ERA crowns he had in Philly. Did I mention the 15 shutouts with Boston? All in all, it was a very nice second act.


1. Babe Ruth

Again, we have to put the numbers in context.

But, golly gee, the guy was 89-46 in Boston. His ERAs from 1915 through 1918 were 2.44, (a league-leading) 1.75, 2.01, and 2.22. He had 17 shutouts in 125 starts during those four years.

He was a very good postseason pitcher, setting a record for consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series (29⅔ ) that lasted until 1961. If he hadn’t been such a gosh-darn good man with the stick he would have won 300 games and been acclaimed as one of the great pitchers of all time.

I know what Bill Lee is thinking, but I think still being an active pitcher at age 67 gives him sufficient bragging rights.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.