'Perhaps the greatest playoff pitcher of all time': What made Jon Lester an October legend and potential Hall of Famer

Now that Jon Lester has announced his retirement from baseball after 16 seasons in the major leagues, there’s bound to be a good discussion about his Hall of Fame candidacy in five years.

But when it comes to his teammates, there’s no debate.

“I told my kids I’m not going until Jon comes in,” said John Lackey, a former Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs teammate. “That’s when we’re going to go to Cooperstown. I can’t wait to be there.”

The debate over Lester’s credentials in Cooperstown will focus on his numbers on the field: He won 200 games, played an integral role in three World Series titles for two storied organizations, authored a no-hitter and made five teams All. stars. But his teammates will remember him more for his intensity on the mound and personality in the clubhouse. To them, he was the very definition of a winner.

“If you’re building a baseball player, as far as how he treats other people, what his goals are, how you want him to compete and perform on and off the field, he’s the model,” said Chicago Cubs manager David Ross.

A sequence of a summer game in the final weeks of his career might best sum up the left-hander.

In mid-August, Lester was on the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals, still trying to work their way into the playoff race, against the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers. In the top of the first inning, Brewers star Christian Yelich hit a 106 mph line drive to Lester’s calf for an infield single.

After getting the next batter out to end the inning, Lester was clearly hurt when he got to the dugout. Pitching coach Mike Maddux told him they had a reliever ready and he could get out of the game.

Lester wanted none of that.

“My calf is nowhere near my heart,” he told Maddux. “I will not leave”.

He went three more innings in a game the Cardinals would win. Two months later, when the Cardinals earned a wild card berth, it was the 11th time a team employing Jon Lester would make the postseason.

“Yeah, that sounds like him,” said good friend and former teammate Dustin Pedroia, who laughed at the story. “‘If you’ve got two of them, you’re ready for anything.’ … That’s what we always say. If it was an arm or a leg: ‘You’ve got another one, get out of there.'”

He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind in the locker room or on camera, about his own performance, or that of his team, or even the commissioner of baseball, whom Lester criticized in 2020 when Rob Manfred denigrated the Series trophy. World .

As teammates looked to him for guidance, opponents were as intimidated by his desire to win as they were by his devastating cut fastball. He was regarded as the quintessential old school player. He didn’t rule out the game’s new analytics, but he didn’t rely on them either: if a computer made preseason forecasts, Lester’s only interest was in proving them wrong.

That attitude was honed in Lester’s early years with the Red Sox. Lester credits then-Boston ace Josh Beckett as a big influence, along with wide receivers Jason Varitek and Ross.

Lester won his first two World Series rings in Boston and also learned what it means to be a good teammate on and off the field.

“You have people from all walks of life on a team that has one goal,” Lester said. “I saw David [Ortiz] bringing together a lot of those guys you never thought would be friends. I wanted to bring that when I came to Chicago.”

Although he was one of many stars with the Red Sox, Lester took over that role that Ortiz played in Boston when he left for the Cubs in 2015. Kris Bryant was still in the minors and players like Javy Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo they hadn’t peaked for a franchise in need of a winning mindset after more than a century without winning a championship. Lester took it upon himself to bring them all together.

Ross recalled a memorable road trip to Oakland that included a private plane taking a group to Pebble Beach to play golf. A day later it was a private bus to a Kenny Chesney concert, all expenses paid by Lester.

“It was the best trip I’ve ever been on,” Ross said. “It’s not about private jets and stuff, it’s about him wanting everyone to have a good time.”

And there were the after-game parties Lester threw at his house, not far from Wrigley Field. Everyone was invited.

“I knew we had a young team,” Lester said. “We wanted to introduce ourselves and meet other people as well. The best way to do that is off the pitch. Plus, we like hosting, which always helps. I’d rather just go up to my room and go to sleep than worry about having to get an Uber.” “.

While he made life fun for his teammates, the ultra-competitive Lester maintained an “I’m here to work” attitude in the ballpark. Screaming matches between him and Ross were the norm.

“My favorite was against Oakland [en 2014]Ross said. “I had struck out 12 in seven innings. He then walked the first in the eighth on four noncompetitive pitches.

“I walked over to the mound and started yelling at him, ‘Are you done? If you’re done, I’ll let him know. [al mánager de los Medias Rojas, John] Farrell’. And he started yelling at me: ‘We’re not done.’ Then he struck out the next three and ended up striking out 15 on the day.”

Ross followed Lester to Chicago in 2015 and the two picked up where they left off. After another argument when Lester was rejecting Ross’s signals to Freddie Freeman, Ross recalls the aftermath after Freeman got a hit to drive in a run.

“We went on the bench and I yelled at him: ‘You decide your own game! You don’t need me!’ He said, ‘Don’t leave me, I was trying to get myself back.’We were so mad at each other.

“It was hilarious. I expected a lot from him. I look back, it’s amazing he didn’t hit me in the face.”

That competitive attitude is why Pedroia relishes the one time he stepped into the batter’s box against Lester, during spring training batting practice in 2005.

“I knew I could get under Jon’s skin,” Pedroia said. “He wasn’t telling me what he was throwing, so if he threw a slicer, I just let it go or let it hit me, I didn’t care. So when he threw a two-seam at me, I hit a missile that hit him right to the L-shaped protective screen.

“I talked so much nonsense to him after that. And I made it clear, I’m never going to face him again. I swear, if we faced him in a regular-season game, I would have taken a day off and sat down and watched him pitch with a Mai Tai on hand”.

Pedroia also never wanted to face Lester because his desire was to continue playing with him. Even after Lester was traded from Boston to Oakland in 2014, Pedroia thought they would reunite after Lester became a free agent.

“In the back of my mind, I always thought we would rehire him,” Pedroia said. “He called me right before he signed with the Cubs. I was crying. That was probably the hardest moment of my major league career. It was late. I was in bed and he called me. I was like, ‘Jon, no.’ I’ll change how I feel about you. That was worse than any loss I had on the field. It was family.”

While his former teammates remember Lester’s career with the utmost respect, his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame will come down to how much voters value his October success, his achievements compared to other left-handed starters and his ability to go far in games for over a decade.

“I don’t want anyone else telling me I can’t do this anymore. I want to be able to hand over my jersey and say, ‘Thanks, that was fun.’ That’s probably the biggest deciding factor.”

Jon Lester on his decision to retire

His postseason ERA of 2.51 ranks him eighth among all pitchers with at least 10 starts. Including just lefties, he is fourth best. His aggregate postseason win probability is fifth behind playoff icons Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz and Andy Pettitte (the only left-hander).

At a time when starters were beginning to pitch less, from 2008 to 2016, Lester pitched 200 or more innings in eight of nine seasons; in 2011 he missed by just 8⅓ innings. He still averaged 170 innings pitched over his last five years (not including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season) before Father Time finally caught up with him.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that I took the ball every five days,” Lester said. “That was the biggest thing for me. I always heard ‘be reliable’ when I was younger. Whatever the outcome was, they knew they could count on me to take the ball.”

When Lester recorded his 200th victory last September, he became the 30th left-hander in MLB history to reach the mark. And much of his career in the sport came as that stat became less prominent: Lester, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander are the only members of the 200-win club who were active last season.

“People’s perspective on the number of wins is changing dramatically,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “I’m thrilled that he’s hit 200. The consistency of his career and the fact that he was able to be such a sensational pitcher in the playoffs, that’s the epitome of any starting pitcher. If you change your perspective [lejos de que 300 victorias sean el estándar al valor general]He’s one of the best pitchers of this generation.”

Those around Lester believe his postseason success, time and time again on the biggest stage, will make a difference to voters.

“It’s not really improving your game,” Ross said of the key to Lester’s dominance in October. “It’s the ability to focus on a big game and slow things down. It gets harder the bigger the game gets. Can you run the shot you want?

“He was so grind-oriented that it set him up for those moments. He took that energy that the postseason creates and he was able to perform. For that reason, he was the best I’ve ever had in the postseason.”

It remains to be seen if Cooperstown is in Lester’s future now that his playing days are over. But one thing is certain, according to those who have spent the past 16 years watching him work: Baseball is losing a unique personality who earned three rings with a stellar postseason run.

“Only the best professional among professionals,” Lackey said. “He worked like crazy. He fucking took the ball every five days. He wasn’t much of a locker room talker. He led by example. Maybe the best playoff pitcher ever.”