JON LESTER'S CAREER IS TAKING A TURN TOWARD COOPERSTOWN
By Tom Verducci
This might be the year Jon Lester starts to look like a probable Hall of Famer.
Wait. Jon Lester? The guy who never has won a Cy Young Award, received votes for the award only three times, never won 20 games, and finished in the top three in ERA only once? The same Jon Lester who is a solid, dependable starter but who lacks the big-time trophy bling of guys like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer?
Admit it: when you watch Lester you don’t exactly think Hall of Famer. But you may have to re-think that perspective, especially after this year.
Lester is one of the best under-the-radar Hall of Fame candidates in the game today. Why? Because he is durable (headed for an 11th straight season with more than 30 starts); he is better in his 30s (3.09 ERA) than in his 20s (3.76), when we tend to form such opinions; and his statistical doppelganger, Roy Halladay, goes on the ballot this fall.
Lester is doing his part this year. At age 34, he is having another superlative season (12-3, 3.06). Though his velocity has dipped the past two years, his changeup is better than ever and the command of his curveball is Andy Pettitte-like—it gets better with age.
Few pitchers in the game today have a cleaner arm action than Lester. He is signed through 2020, so with his fabulous mechanics and with the Cubs figuring to stay competitive he has a good chance of getting to 200 wins. (He enters career start 370 on Tuesday with 171.)
An election or strong showing for Halladay would enhance Lester’s road to Cooperstown. Halladay is a worthy Hall of Famer, though I’m not sure he gets in on the first try with 203 wins because voters are still re-calibrating what makes a Hall of Fame starter. After four pitchers won their 300th game between 2003-09, we have to junk that measuring stick in an age when pitch counts, deep bullpens, “pre-hab” injury care and analytics have devalued length from starters.
Lester is no Halladay when it comes to being on the short list of “Best Pitcher in the Game” candidates during their prime. Halladay’s case is one for a strong peak. His value is entirely packaged in a 10-year window in which he finished in the top five in Cy Young voting seven times (winning it twice), made eight All-Star Games and led the league in complete games seven times. Lester has finished in the top five of Cy Young voting three times (no wins), made six All-Star teams and never led the league in a major statistical category.
Without the extreme highs and lows of Halladay’s career, Lester quietly is approaching numbers similar to what Halladay posted. Check out where they stand after 370 career games:
Through 370 Games:
I’ve got an even better Lester doppelganger for you. Here’s how Lester compares to Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez—and these are Gomez’s final numbers (Gomez was not elected by the writers, but by the Veterans Committee):
Lester’s candidacy is built on these outlier strengths:
2. A crazy high winning percentage (.643).
3. An impressive ERA+ that has been improving (123).
4. Historic postseason success. Dude won two World Series with the Red Sox and one with the Cubs. He has made more postseason starts in which he allowed one or no runs (11) than anybody other than Tom Glavine (14) and Pettitte (12).
Lester is one of only 10 pitchers to post a winning percentage of .640 or better over more than 350 starts. Of those, the only ones not in the Hall of Fame are Roger Clemens (because of steroids) and our doppelgangers, Halladay and Lester:
Pitchers With .640 Win Percentage, 350 Starts:
1. Whitey Ford*
2. Pedro Martinez*
3. Lefty Grove*
4. Christy Mathewson*
5. Roy Halladay
6. Roger Clemens
7. John Clarkson*
8. Randy Johnson*
9. Jon Lester
10. Pete Alexander*
*Hall of Famer
Jack Morris was inducted into the Hall of Fame Sunday on the strength of elite durability. He was the last of a breed. Morris took the ball through at least eight innings more than any American League pitcher since the DH was established in 1973. He did so more than any other pitcher—regardless of league—since his debut in 1977: 248 times. Clemens is a distant second at 227. Nobody else is within 80 such lengthy starts over the past 42 seasons, and at this rate nobody ever will. The active leader, Felix Hernandez, has just 96 such starts.
Baseball writers rejected Morris 15 times. He was selected by the Hall’s version of an oversight committee.
So where do the voting writers go from here when it comes to starting pitchers and the Hall of Fame?
First, let’s examine the current backlog. Let’s set the bar at 200 wins and see who has the best ERA+ among those not in the Hall:
Highest ERA+ Not in Hall of Fame (200+ Wins Since 1900)
1. Roger Clemens
2. Roy Halladay
T3. Curt Schilling
T3. Kevin Brown
T5. Eddie Cicotte
T5. Mike Mussina
But think about this quirk when you think about the odds against Schilling, Mussina and Lester. Think about the multitudes of starting pitchers who debuted in the past half century—since 1968. Now think about how many of them who did not win a Cy Young Award were elected to the Hall of Fame by the writers. You can stop at one: Bert Blyleven. That’s it. Clemens and Brown (no longer eligible on the writers’ ballot) have been linked to PEDs. Cicotte is on the permanently ineligible list. Halladay, Schilling and Mussina should all be in the Hall of Fame in the next two or three years. Lester, if he maintains his 123 ERA+, would join this Famers-in-waiting list with 29 more wins.
There is room in the Hall for more starting pitchers who didn’t win a Cy. The line starts with Mussina and Schilling—and maybe, if he can continue what he’s been doing in his 30s with the Cubs, Lester, too.
RANK 'EM: LIKELIEST HALL OF FAMERS PLAYING TODAY
By Jon Tayler
This Sunday marked the induction of five men into the most exclusive of baseball’s clubs: the Hall of Fame. Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris all received their bronze plaques in Cooperstown, marking their place among the game’s legends. But who of today’s active players stands the best chance of joining them? Let’s rank them, using Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system as our guide.
(Note: Not included on this list are Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Ichiro Suzuki, and Mike Trout. The first four are all first-ballot locks when their time comes. As for Trout, he’s already seventh all-time in JAWS at centerfield a week shy of his 27th birthday. This is your regular reminder that he’s on pace to be one of the 10 greatest players ever.)
With those players accounted for, here are the next nine, including their triple slashline of WAR, WAR7 (aka peak WAR) and JAWS numbers in addition to their totals at their positions.
1. Joe Mauer, C
54.9 WAR/39.0 WAR7/49.6 JAWS (Avg. HOF C: 53.5/34.5/44.0)
Mauer ranks seventh all time at catcher in JAWS, but his career has gone backwards since he moved to first base in 2014. Crossing the 2,000 career hit line should help his case, as will his 2009 AL MVP win, six All-Star selections, three Gold Gloves, and good guy persona. He should get in, but it won’t be a slam dunk.
2. Buster Posey, C
40.7/37.1/38.9 (Avg. HOF C: 53.5/34.5/44.0)
For all his accolades, Posey isn’t Hall-worthy by JAWS, exceeding the standard only in peak WAR. He’s still just 31, though, so there’s time to pile up stats (including hits; his career total is a mere 1,259), and he has a Rookie of the Year award, the 2012 NL MVP, six All-Star nods, and three World Series rings in his favor.
3. Clayton Kershaw, SP
Kershaw is closest to a lock among starters, with a career 2.37 ERA, three Cy Young awards and the 2014 NL MVP as well as a five-year run from ‘11 through ’15 as one of the best pitchers ever. His case will come down to good health, as injuries have robbed him of big chunks of the last three seasons. (Also worth highlighting: CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, and Justin Verlander, who are close to the JAWS standard but all much older than Kershaw, who’s 30, and have less time left to bolster their numbers.)
4. Joey Votto, 1B
58.2/46.1/52.1 (Avg. HOF 1B: 66.8/42.7/54.7)
By JAWS, Canada’s great slugging hope is on the cusp of Cooperstown. But like his present impact, Votto’s Hall case will likely be best appreciated and championed by those well versed in advanced statistics. By traditional counting stats, he’s on the lighter side, with only 1,693 career hits and 266 homers—and at 34, he doesn’t have much time left to pad those numbers significantly.
5. Robinson Canó, 2B
67.6/50.5/59.0 (Avg. HOF 2B: 69.5/44.5/57.0)
Going into 2018, Cano was cruising toward Cooperstown. Then came the PED suspension that wrecked his season and, perhaps, his Hall of Fame hopes. By JAWS, he ranks as the seventh-best second baseman of all time and trails only Jeff Kent in career home runs at the position. But will voters hold his PED bust against him? His case has gone from sure thing to too close to call.
6. Yadier Molina, C
38.4/28.6/33.5 (Avg. HOF C: 53.5/34.5/44.0)
In Molina’s favor: his reputation as the greatest defensive catcher of his era and one of the best ever. Working against him: his mediocre offensive numbers. His case will probably play out like Omar Vizquel’s, with lots of support from traditional circles and less from the stats crowd. It’s worth noting that right now, Molina is ahead in JAWS of only three enshrined catchers: Roy Campanella, whose brilliant career was cut short by injury; and Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell, both dubious Veterans Committee choices.
7. Chase Utley, 2B
65.5/50.5/59.0 (Avg. HOF 2B: 69.5/44.5/57.0)
I went deeper into Utley’s Hall chances when he announced his retirement, but suffice to say he has an uphill climb despite the JAWS stamp of approval. Short of 2,000 hits and without any significant hardware to his name save a World Series ring, his case is strongest in advanced stats and peak performance.
8. Ian Kinsler/Dustin Pedroia, 2B
57.4/40.4/48.9 | 52.1/42.4/47.3 (Avg. HOF 2B: 69.5/44.5/57.0)
Both Kinsler and Pedroia will probably end up on the outside looking in for a bronze plaque. Of the two, Pedroia has the better shot thanks to his Rookie of the Year win, 2008 AL MVP award, four Gold Gloves, and two World Series rings. But injuries have wrecked his last two seasons, leaving the 34-year-old not much time to get back on the Hall track.
Odds: 15% (Kinsler); 25% (Pedroia)
9. Evan Longoria, 3B
50.3/40.9/45.6 (Avg. HOF 3B: 68.4/43.0/55.7)
Longoria is the closest active third baseman by JAWS behind Beltre, but he’s well short of the cutoff. Worse, the 32-year-old is amid his second straight subpar year. There’s still time for him, but with weak counting stats and no notable awards save a handful of Gold Gloves and the 2008 Rookie of the Year, his candidacy isn’t very strong.
HOW THE INDIANS FOUND JIM THOME
By Tom Verducci
Here’s my favorite story about Jim Thome, because it reminds us that Hall of Famers don’t always start out as can’t-miss stars – but it’s the job of scouts to find them.
Thome went undrafted out of Limestone Community High School in Bartonville, Ill., and then attended Illinois Central College in East Peoria, a community college with a Division II baseball team. One day in 1989, between games of a doubleheader at Illinois Central, an Indians scout named Tom Couston approached Thome—but covertly.
Thome had gone 0-for-3 with a walk in the first game. He hit the ball hard and ran to first base hard—the kind of actions a scout values more than results. Thome was 18 years old, 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds—about 70 pounds less than what he would weigh in his prime.
“I’m Tom Couston with the Cleveland Indians,” the scout said. “Don’t look at me when I talk to you. Keep your back to me and I’ll keep my back to you.”
Thome was not a big-time prospect. Couston thought he might have a diamond in the rough to himself. He did not want to tip off his interest in Thome to other scouts. So the junior college kid and the scout stood near each other, but faced in opposite directions.
“I want to know,” Couston said, “if we draft you, will you sign?”
“Yes, sir,” Thome replied.
The Indians did draft Thome—not until the 13th round, after 332 other players had been picked. They signed him for $15,000. They sent him to the Gulf Coast League, where the kid came to the plate 213 times and did not hit a single home run.
The next spring training, Thome fell under the tutelage of Charlie Manuel, a hitting guru who at the time was the Indians’ Triple-A manager. Manuel saw untapped power in Thome. He opened up Thome’s stance to unlock his hips—Thome had hit with a leftfield stroke because of a closed front side.
There was one other key change. Manuel had just seen The Natural, the baseball movie with Robert Redford. To free Thome’s hands and hips in what had been a rigid setup, Manuel suggested Thome hit like Roy Hobbs, Redford’s character. Hobbs would hold the bat out in front, toward the pitcher, before taking his stance. Today there is a statue in Cleveland of Thome in that iconic pose.
And the kid from Illinois Central hit more home runs than all but seven players in major league history.
ROUNDTABLE: WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE MEMORY INVOLVING THE NEWEST HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES?
Emma Baccellieri: I've always had a special affection for Cleveland's improbable comeback against Seattle in 2001, when they famously battled through a twelve-run deficit in the seventh inning to win in the eleventh. It's the sort of game that should be able to instill a little bit of childlike joy in just about anyone, but my experience of it as a child at the time—albeit only in the box score of the next morning's newspaper—felt like nothing short of magic.
While Jolbert Cabrera (who was, to put it politely, very much not a Hall-of-Fame player) usually gets the credit as the hero for his extra-inning go-ahead hit, Jim Thome played a role that was just as important. He was the one who kicked off the offense for Cleveland, with a two-run home run when they were down 12-0 in the fourth inning, and he was the one who opened up the pivotal eighth, leading off with a solo homer.
Neither of those plate appearances get much attention in the night's highlight reel; the building blocks of a comeback are never as flashy as the one that tops the pyramid. But they were among the game's most critical points, with that first home run arguably being the most critical of all, and they're certainly among my favorite moments from Jim Thome.
Michael Beller: I loved watching Vlad Guerrero hit. Who didn’t, right? But what I really loved was watching him hit bad balls. It wasn’t just that Guerrero would swing at pitches no one else in the league would. It was that he did damage against them. Routinely. It was hard enough to get Guerrero out with strikes. Once he proved he could, and would, hurt pitchers on balls a foot out of the strike zone in any direction, including in the dirt, it must have felt impossible. When I picture Guerrero, he’s either unleashing a 300-foot rope from his cannon of a right arm, or hitting a pitch that was over his head 400 feet for a home run.
Connor Grossman: I'm a sucker for classic games. Cue up Games 4, 5 or 7 of the '01 World Series, Game 6 of the '11 Fall Classic, the 2007 tiebreaker between the Rockies and Padres or in '09 between the Twins and Tigers—I'm hooked. Baseball provides a buldup of drama unlike any other sport, and no game better encapsulates that than the 10 innings authored by Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. So many elements of that game will stand the test of time, namely the 10 frames thrown by the starting pitcher who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame. You can watch Morris's 10th inning of work here.
Jon Tayler: Definitely the time that Jack Morris, one of the worst starting pitchers ever to be inducted into the Hall, told reporter Jennifer Frey in 1990 in the Tigers’ locker room, “I don’t talk to women when I’m naked unless they’re on top of me or I’m on top of them.” What a class act and great choice for baseball immortality.
In all seriousness, my favorite moment of any of these players is probably any Vlad Guerrero highlight, as the dude was a freak like few before or since. Let’s go with this compilation of him showing off his cannon of an arm.
I miss Vlad Sr. every day.
SIX LEGENDARY ACHIEVEMENTS
By Michael Beller
The six new members of the Hall of Fame all earned baseball’s highest honor by putting together long, full careers that were celebrated on Sunday in Cooperstown. Here, we consider the one stat from their respective careers that stands out as their singular achievement.
Vladimir Guerrero: 34-37 and 39-40
Guerrero was one of the league’s premier power-speed threats in the early 2000s. While his prime speed didn’t nearly last as long as his power, he was a 30-30 candidate during his best years with the Expos. He put up consecutive 30-30 seasons, in fact, hitting 34 homers and swiping 37 bags in 2001, and then drilling 39 bombs and stealing 40 bags the next year. He didn’t win the MVP in either campaign—somehow finishing 24th in the ‘01 voting—but earned the achievement in 2004. Guerrero retired with 449 homers and 181 steals, making him one of 21 players in MLB history with at least 400 and 150.
Trevor Hoffman: 601
This one’s a layup. Hoffman saved 601 games in his brilliant career, the most in MLB history at the time of his retirement in 2010. Mariano Rivera would pass him the following season, and they’re the only two pitchers to save 600 games. Lee Smith, who’s third on the overall saves list, ended his career with 478. Hoffman was a dominant force at the end of games for nearly two decades in San Diego. Three times he finished in the top five in Cy Young voting, and twice landing in the top 10 for MVP voting, which should be all but impossible for a closer. And don’t forget, he helped make walk-up music a thing, with Hell’s Bells being the perfect soundtrack for his career.
Chipper Jones: .364
Batting average doesn’t have the sway it once did, but it’s still eye-popping to see someone hit .364 for a season. It’s even crazier when that player is 36 years old, as Jones was in 2008 when he hit .364/.470/.574. Jones is one of 56 players in MLB history with a career OBP of at least .400, and he’s also one of those 21 players with at least 400 homers and 150 steals. Jones was a do-it-all superstar for 19 years in Atlanta and stayed relevant all the way to the end of his career, hitting .287/.377/.455 as a 40-year-old in 2012. It was that 2008 season, however, that jumps out.
Jack Morris: 6
Morris is from a bygone era, a time when pitchers regularly topped 250 innings in a season. Morris did that six times in his career, and came up just shy five more times. That, however, isn’t the six in question. Rather, it’s the six shutouts he threw for the Tigers in 1986. By comparison, all starting pitchers in the majors this season have combined for 16 shutouts, and no one is responsible for more than one.
Jim Thome: 612
This was another easy one. Thome belted 612 homers in his career, eighth-most in MLB history. He hit at least 100 homers with three different teams, the Indians, Phillies and White Sox, and owns six 40-homer seasons. Thome was one of the most feared hitters in the league during his 22-year career, and he wasn’t just a slugger. Like Jones, he got on base in more than 40% of his plate appearances, ending his career with a .402 OBP. The homers, however, are how he’ll be remembered.
Alan Trammell: 1,307
Trammell spent 20 years in Detroit, most of them playing shortstop. He and Lou Whitaker were one of the league’s best double-play combos for the entire decade of the 80s, and they turned quite a few twin killings. Trammell was part of 1,307 double plays, seventh-most as a shortstop in MLB history. He wasn’t bad at the plate, either, hitting .285/.352/.415 with 185 homers and 236 steals in his career.
JONNY VENTERS'S JOURNEY COMES FULL CIRCLE WITH RETURN TO BRAVES
By Emma Baccellieri
Every trade deadline has its own supply of surprise candidates, so characterized for reasons related to their skill set or a team’s needs or contract. But this summer’s deadline has perhaps no trade candidate as unlikely as Jonny Venters—for reasons that are, in and of themselves, pretty unusual.
Venters was dealt from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Atlanta Braves last week in exchange for international slot money, coming full circle to rejoin the club who drafted him and started his career. The trade itself is unremarkable. What’s remarkable is that Venters is in the major leagues this year at all, and that he’s been performing well enough to be dealt on his own, in any capacity. Just by arriving at spring training this year, the lefthanded reliever had already done enough to qualify as an incredible comeback story.
After enjoying a promising start—Rookie of the Year votes in 2010, an All-Star appearance in 2011—he was sidelined, repeatedly and disastrously, by injury. Back in 2005, as a 20-year-old in A-ball, Venters had undergone his first Tommy John surgery, and he’d have several more to come. His second version of the procedure came in 2013, and his third followed almost immediately after, in 2014. (He later said that he knew something was wrong in his very first bullpen session of recovery after his second Tommy John.) Between the two surgeries, Venters didn’t pitch at all in organized ball. He didn’t see game action again at any level until June 2016, as a 31-year-old back in High-A. And then, one month later, he received another round of devastating news: His UCL was torn. Again.
Instead of a fourth round of TJS, Venters had a different procedure to reattach the ligament, bringing him to what he’s described as a total of “three-and-a-half” Tommy John procedures. The rehab process is physically and mentally grueling to go through even once, and there are only a handful of pitchers who’ve done it more than twice. To do it back to back to back, with no time or space for any bright spots in between? Venters has said that he came close to giving up. He didn’t. On April 25, Venters pitched in a major league game for the first time in more than five years. He faced just one batter, but he got him out—and he’s done plenty more of that since then.
Venters doesn’t look like the pitcher he was back in 2011. His velocity has lost a few ticks, and he isn’t recording as many strikeouts. But he’s been a solid bullpen piece, enough to qualify as competent relief help for a team that’s needed it lately. That role isn’t necessarily a flashy one, but after a journey like this—the fact that the story is still going is enough to qualify for happily ever after.
WHAT'S ON TAP: A SCORCHING-HOT CHRISTIAN YELICH HAS THE BREWERS ROLLING
By Michael Beller
Hitter to Watch: Christian Yelich, Brewers
Yelich has been on a tear the last two weeks, going 28-for-54 (.519) with four homers, seven doubles and 15 RBI in his last 13 games. He has at least one hit in all of those games, and has 11 multi-hit games in that span, including all of his last six. Yelich is now hitting .318/.384/.527 with 15 homers, 21 doubles and 57 RBI in his first season with the Brewers.
Pitcher to Watch: Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Tanaka has been excellent in his last two turns—his second and third starts since returning from the DL. He tossed his third career shutout in his last trip to the mound, blanking the Rays while allowing just three hits and striking out nine. If Tanaka can be a healthy, reliable No. 2 to Luis Severino, the Yankees will have a real chance to overtake the Red Sox and avoid playing in the Wild Card game. He’s scheduled for two starts this week, taking on the Orioles on Tuesday and Red Sox on Sunday.
Series to Watch: Astros at Mariners, Monday through Wednesday
Yeah, the Yankees and Red Sox get together this weekend, and that’s realistically the biggest series of the week. They received the series-to-watch treatment earlier this month, though, and as significant as the AL East race is, the AL West needs some attention. The Astros enter this week five games ahead of the Mariners, and six games clear of the A’s. They can put some real breathing room between themselves and the rest of the division with the three-gamer in Seattle. The Astros will send Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel to the mound, while the Mariners counter with James Paxton, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc.
TWEETS OF THE WEEK
FROM THE VAULT: SIX READS FOR SIX ALL-TIME PLAYERS
By Connor Grossman
To keep with the Cooperstown spirit of this week's column, it felt right to give each new Hall of Famer (Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Jim Thome, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell) a shoutout from the SI archives. There's a Vault story for nearly every occasion, and certainly every Hall of Fame player.
• Revisit the historic start to Vlad Guerrero's 2000 season with the Expos in this Tom Verducci story.
• In one of the greatest World Series games ever, Jack Morris was simply The Man Who Wouldn't Stop Pitching.
• "Nobody calls him Larry." Need I say anymore?
• There's a slight chance the "Pride of Peoria," Jim Thome, might be the best baseball player in his family. Just a chance.
• Alan Trammell grew up a fan of the Padres, then beat them in the 1984 Fall Classic.
• Armed with "a changeup from hell," Trevor Hoffman embarrassed hitters and ascended the ranks of the best relief pitchers ever.