One of the greatest big game pitchers of his generation is calling it a career.
Jon Lester, the former Red Sox ace and a three-time World Series champion, told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers this week that he’s retiring after 16 seasons. Lester split his final season between Washington and St. Louis after a highly successful six-year run with the Chicago Cubs, and the big lefty finishes a five-time All-Star with a 200-117 record, 3.66 ERA and 2,488 strikeouts.
While his Red Sox tenure ended far sooner than it should have, Lester enjoyed many of his best years in Boston and remains highly regarded within the organization. Given that he will likely draw consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame once eligible, it’s worth considering if Lester deserves a prominent honor from Boston as well.
Specifically, should the Red Sox consider retiring his No. 31?
The Red Sox currently have 11 retired numbers, those being Bobby Doerr (1), Joe Cronin (4), Johnny Pesky (6), Carl Yastrzemski (8), Ted Williams (9), Jim Rice (14), Wade Boggs (26), Carlton Fisk (27), David Ortiz (34), Pedro Martinez (45) and Jackie Robinson (42, MLB-wide). At first glance it may not seem like Lester belongs in that same rarefied air, but much like his Hall of Fame candidacy Lester has put together a much stronger argument than most probably realize.
First, let’s deal with the technical issues up front. The obvious impediment for Lester’s number being retired is that the Red Sox have re-issued it four times since his departure in 2014, but even so there is plenty of precedent for a former Red Sox great’s number to be re-used before later being retired.
Doerr and Cronin’s numbers were worn by 16 players each between the end of their careers and their numbers’ retirement, and Pesky’s was worn by 13 other players. Much like Lester, Boggs and Fisk both left Boston mid-career and their numbers remained in circulation for decades. In fact, Boggs’ number was worn as recently as 2015 by Brock Holt before the Red Sox honored the five-time batting champion the following year.
In addition, there are no club policies that would preclude Lester’s number from being retired. The Red Sox did once have formal criteria, requiring that players spend 10 years with the Red Sox, finish their career in Boston and be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but a team spokesman confirmed Wednesday that’s no longer the case and now players are considered on a case-by-case basis.
So how does Lester’s case hold up?
Even though Lester only pitched nine seasons in Boston, he still ranks fourth in team history in both strikeouts (1,386) and games started (241). He also ranks top 10 in wins (110, ninth), strikeouts per nine innings (8.21, seventh) and wins above replacement for pitchers (29.9, seventh), and overall he had a 3.64 ERA over 1,519.1 innings. He also was a three-time All-Star, threw a no-hitter, beat cancer and was by all accounts a highly respected teammate and leader.
But what really set Lester apart was his ability to get the job done in the games that mattered most.
Lester appeared in 13 playoff games during his Red Sox career, making 11 starts, and he played a crucial role in leading the Red Sox to two World Series titles. He won the decisive Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, and in 2013 he put together one of the greatest playoff runs in MLB history, winning four of his five starts while posting a 1.56 ERA over 34.2 innings en route to the title.
Overall Lester had a 2.14 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 21 walks over 75.2 playoff innings with the Red Sox, and he was a perfect 3-0 in three World Series starts with a 0.43 ERA, 18 strikeouts and four walks over 21 innings.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Whether the Red Sox retire Lester’s number or not, it would be great to see the longtime starter brought back into the fold. The Red Sox bungling Lester’s contract negotiations is widely acknowledged as one of the biggest missteps in recent franchise history, and by all accounts Lester should have finished his career as a Red Sox lifer.
Retiring Lester’s number won’t re-write that history, but it would be a long-overdue and well-deserved acknowledgement of his importance to the franchise.
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