Peter Gammons: Why Lester Matters

jon lester red sox

Jon Lester was the first player ever drafted by the John Henry Red Sox. He was a second rounder, the 57th player picked, the 28th pitcher, and you can go to the shredder and decide between Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Lester, but there was no one else taken in the opening rounds of that draft, famous as The Moneyball Draft, close to any of the four.

David Chadd was the scouting director that spring, a Henry man brought in from the Marlins, which is worth mentioning because if the Tigers do not sign Max Scherzer, you can bet the snowblower that Dave Dombrowski will, as ever, listen to Chadd and sign Lester for ages 31-35; in order, Greinke’s career WAR is 35.7, Hamels 33.8, Cain 32.3, Lester 28.3.

The more cogent point is what Jon Lester has meant to this remarkably successful ownership. One year off being diagnosed with cancer, he started the clinching game of the World Series. He was brilliant in this past post-season, earning two rings and helping his owners to toasts throughout New England, the development of The Fens, the remarkable reach of Fenway Sports Management and $16 lobster rolls. In fact, in this glorious era, Jon Lester’s contributions to October make him the all-time lefthander starting pitcher leader in post-season ERA (1.97); the only two righthanded pitchers with better post-season ERA’s are Christy Mathewson and Waite Hoyt, who was sold to the Yankees by Harry Frazee. In the regular season, his six year run, averaging 200 innings/15 wins/sub-4.00 ERA, is matched only by Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia. We all understand pitchers’ wins are deceptive, but Matt Cain and Homer Bailey have never won 15 games, which Lester has done five times, in the American League East, no less.

When Ken Rosenthal, as he so often does, broke the news that the Red Sox offer to retain Lester after this season was in the four year, $70M range, it set off a media firestorm. But not from Lester, who said, “we knew things would get out.” Never did he complain or politic. This is who he is: in February, 2007, Lester asked to chat, because we’d each gone through life-threatening situations the previous summer. When I said, “mine was easier, because I wasn’t aware for two weeks, and then it was about family,” he replied, “it was all right for me. What I want to talk about is family, and helping them,” because with Jon Lester it wasn’t about him, it was about other people. He was 22 at the time.

Still, while the Red Sox like to believe players want to play for them and they do, there are lines. They waved goodbye to Jacoby Ellsbury when the Yankees outbid all competitors by more than $70M. OK, we get it, Ellsbury making $20-something million at ages 34-36 is an expensive risk.

Lester is different. Do they know what Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront are going to be in two years? Of course not. None of their young pitchers stepped forward this spring, and when Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, et al are trying to get established down the road, Lester is invaluable in terms of veteran leadership. He is a workaholic. He is accountable. He is reliable. In spring training, when Allen Webster once threw a bullpen session to straighten out his mechanical issues, Lester was there for support.

There are no analytics for that, any more than there are analytics for what James Shields handed to young Rays pitchers.

To a franchise that relishes its history and its tradition, Lester has a unique place. This ownership likes short term, wise contracts, but if Lester were to walk, what would it say about the two-way street of loyalty? Not much good. The Red Sox players see it, they feel it, they know what 2013 meant and how Lester is at the core of that soul.

Now, we understand the concerns about an aging pitcher, especially a workhorse, power pitcher like Lester. His velocity this month has averaged 92.69. In 2010, it was 94.55. But Juan Nieves has helped him regain his downhill plain, he’s gone back to better use of his curveball instead of his cutter. In the home opener against the Brewers, the feel between Lester and David Ross was special, and the fact that he did not win was the classic example of how, on a given, windblown day, hits happen even when the pitcher has superb stuff.

The Red Sox want to transition to a team built from within, which is understandable. But in 2015-16-17 they’re probably going to have anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of their roster making the minimum, so for a team in a major market with media dollars and the highest ballpark experience price in the game, they can afford a 34-year-old Lester as a backend starter who can remind Owens or Barnes or Trey Ball “this is who we are.”

The best moment on Opening Day was when the players and the firemen lowered the World Championship banner out of respect for so many who gave themselves in the line of duty, without a moment of self-gratulation, an unpublicized act that to many in Fenway Park was the Red Sox way of saying “this is who we are.” This ownership has been a model of Boston citizenship, as Tom Menino reminds us, and one of the reasons two banners have been raised in seven years is Lester, the first player this ownership ever drafted. Like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester is who the Red Sox would like their players to be, which is why, whether it’s four years and $100M or four years, $80M with a statue, duck boat, truck and vesting options, he is a person they do not want walking away.

  • johnmartin

    I have heard several news reports that the initial offer was 4 years at between $70 and $80 million. An AAV of between $17.5 and $20 million is a perfectly reasonable initial offer to a pitcher who will be a free agent at 31 years old. Look, Jon Lester has been/is a very good pitcher, but one who has been increadibly inconsistent over the last 3 years. It looks like he has matured beyond the pitcher who let every close ball call get to him. There is likely value in having a playoff-tested pitcher with an inspiring history who has the respect of younger pitchers on the staff in 3-4 years. It is, as you recognize, difficult to quantify that value. The Red Sox should begin the process by trying to project his performance over the next 4-5 years and put a value on that, which is precisely what Ben Cherington seems to have done. Any additional value to be added by virtue of Lester’s intangibles will likely be done through discussion among Cherington, John Farrell and the owners. My initial prediction was $100 million over 5 years, and I am sticking with that.

  • dwightevansfan

    Outstanding article yet again from the master of the baseball pen, Peter Gammons. Considering the contracts that some pitchers are getting, and considering the special intangibles that Jon Lester brings to Boston in addition to his stellar pitching, it would be a tragedy if ownership did not get Lester signed. John Henry and his fellow owners need to step forward and get this done – now, not in the fall, but this spring.

  • VtBob

    Nobody says it better Peter. Jon is one who deserves to be treated with respect and admiration by not only the fans, but the Red Sox as well. While they’ve let a few get away, I have to believe this one will get done. If not, there will be hell to pay from the fans that fill the most expensive ticket in the game.

  • ficklefingeroffate

    Now pitching for The NY Yankees Jon Lester