Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Greatest Lefty In Red Sox History

Without argument the greatest left handed pitcher in Red Sox history is Lefty Grove. In his career, Grove is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He is a 300 game winner. He has the 7th highest wins above replacement (WAR) for any pitcher all time. He is in the Hall of Fame. He even won the very first American League MVP award ever given in 1931.

Grove did most of his work with the Philadelphia Athletics before the Red Sox acquired the star pitcher in 1934 at the age of 34 in one of A’s owner Connie Mack’s notorious talent dumps (the Sox sent below average pitcher Bob Kline and below average short stop Rabbit Warstler and $125,000 cash to the A’s for Grove). His first season in Boston was a great disappointment as he appeared in only 22 games and posted an ERA of 6.50. But from 1935-1939, Grove had one of the two greatest runs of any pitcher ever from the ages of 35-39. In this span he won 67% of his games and posted an ERA 73% better than average. The only pitcher with a better ERA relative to average in that age range was Randy Johnson at 75% better than league average (the next closest was Dazzy Vance at 46% better). In this five year period, Johnson won 4 straight Cy Young awards. Had the award existed during Grove’s career, he may have matched this feat. 

Grove finished his career with the Red Sox with the following team ranks:

Wins – 2nd (Mel Parnell had 18 more in 75 more apperances)
Winning % - 3rd
Complete Games – 1st (will never be matched)
Shut Outs – 5th (he pitched in a high octane offensive era though)
Innings pitched – 2nd
Strike outs – 4th (pitchers struck out fewer batters back then)
ERA+ (relative to league) – 1st
WAR – 1st

Here’s the thing about being the best in something though: someone is always trying to come up on you.

Jon Lester pitched 7 shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays last night, striking out 11 batters against just 3 hits and one walk. Quietly, Lester ran his record to 15-6 with an ERA 44% better than league average and his numbers across the board are not much different than last year when he finished 4th in the AL Cy Young voting. In fact, since winning his battle with cancer and becoming a full time member of the Red Sox rotation, Lester has been consistently excellent for four straight years. But you knew that already, didn’t you? What you may not know is that Lester is shooting up the ranks of all time Red Sox lefties faster than a Baltimore junkie (sorry, been watching The Wire a ton lately). Let's take a look at some of the major numbers, how Lester ranks among Red Sox lefties and his path to the top in each category.


Though this is mostly a meaningless stat, it can be mildly interesting. Lester ranks 7th among Red Sox lefties with 76 career wins. He is behind Ray Collins, Bruce Hurst, Babe Ruth, Dutch Leonard, Grove and the leader Parnell, who has 123. At the end of this season, Lester will at worst be 47 wins away from the top spot. If he maintains his 16 win per season average over the next 3 years, Jon Lester will be the winningest lefty in Red Sox history.

Winning %
Lester currently has the best winning % of any Red Sox lefty with at least 30 starts (Andrew Miller’s is actually better in 11 starts) at 71%. He also ranks 2nd all-time of any Red Sox pitcher behind Pedro Martinez’s 76% (holy shit). This is a tough one to predict how he will finish because pitcher won-loss record involves so many factors beyond the pitcher’s control and we don’t know how long Lester will remain with the Sox. He could play his whole career here and have 3 or 4 seasons at the end of his career as a crafty lefty posting sub .500 seasons that would torpedo his career winning %. The next closest on the list is Babe Ruth at 66%. Lester would have to lose 8 straight decisions to reach this level.

Innings pitched
Lester ranks 8th all-time here behind all the pitchers mentioned under wins and Herb Pennock. Parnell also ranks first with 1752 innings. Lester currently stands at 938 innings and will probably throw about 24 more this year, leaving him at roughly 962 career innings. After this year he will still be 790 innings behind Parnell. Lester has averaged just over 200 innings per season since he joined the rotation full time so if the current pace holds he would overtake Parnell in 4 years. However, he is only signed for the next 3 seasons, so if the Red Sox do not extend him he would top out at 2nd or 3rd.

By the end of next year, Jon Lester will have the most strikeouts of any Red Sox lefty ever. He currently sits 164 strikeouts behind the first place Hurst and has averaged nearly 200 strikeouts per season over the last 4 years. Barring injury, there is no doubt he will finish his Red Sox career in first here. He also holds the top 2 spots for single season strikeouts for a Red Sox lefty and is on pace to grab the third spot as well.

ERA+ (ERA relative to league average)
Lester sits 2nd all-time behind Grove. However, Grove was 43% better than league average compared to just 32% better than league average for Lester. He is smack dab in the middle of his prime right now so he could definitely have some seasons in the near future that are better than his career mark, but he is already posting his best ERA+ this season and it is 44% better than average, which is basically what Grove did through his whole Sox career. Lester just barely outpaces Frank Viola and Leonard here (31% better and 29% better, respectively) so how he pitches the next 3 years and then how long he stays in Boston will play a major factor in how he ends up ranking.

WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
Lester, in just 4 full seasons, ranks 3rd all-time with 23.2 WAR. He is behind Parnell (29.0) and Grove (38.7). Over the last 4 years he has averaged about 5.4 WAR. If he keeps up his current pace, and being that he will be ages 28-30 for the next three years I expect no slow down, he will approach Parnell next year and should catch and pass Grove in 2014, his final season under his current Red Sox contract. If you put a lot of faith in WAR, and I definitely do, Lester will have a strong case for being considered the best left handed pitcher in Red Sox history when his current contract is up. While Grove undoubtedly had the stronger peak (though it’s funny to call ages 35-39 a “peak”), Lester should have the greater overall career value. If Lester signs an extension with the Sox he will start taking aim at Pedro and Cy Young for the second greatest pitcher in Red Sox history (nobody will pass Roger Clemens). So next time Lester starts, keep in mind you are watching one of the all-time greats in his absolute prime.

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