- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Back in more innocent times, when Seth Levinson was just beginning negotiations in the spring with the Boston Red Sox on a contract extension for pitcher Jon Lester that most everyone assumed would arrive at a happy outcome, he gave his client a book he'd assembled for Lester's personal enjoyment.
The book not only contained a recitation of Lester's career accomplishments, but gave his performance some historical context, how the Sox left-hander matched up against some of the best pitchers in the game.
Levinson had an ulterior motive in creating this book: He planned to make sure it wound up on the nightstands of CEO Larry Lucchino and GM Ben Cherington, too, to remind them of what they truly had in Lester, who had just turned 30.
But the book was an eye-opener for Lester.
"It went back from Day 1 of baseball statistics to now," Lester said the other day in Tropicana Field. "It goes back to Cy Young, back to Steve Carlton. It compared you to a lot of these guys in the Hall of Fame when they were the same age as you.
"I said, shoot, I've got some better numbers than some of these Hall of Famers. Maybe I am pretty good. This isn't my first rodeo. I've done it a time or two. I've been pretty consistent. And that's when you realize, 'Hey, I am pretty good.'"
And when you start thinking in those terms, and contemplate how important starting pitching is to a team's success, you look at the market for pitchers at your level and resolve not to sell yourself short. That didn't mean Lester tore up the hometown discount he had said he was willing to take at the outset of talks; it just meant there might have been a perception issue between his side and the Red Sox's on what constituted a hometown discount.
So, how do Lester's numbers compare? We chose five to consider: earned run average-plus, which measures your ERA against the average ERA of pitchers in the same time period; WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched); strikeouts per nine innings; walks per nine innings; and WAR (wins above replacement).
Lester has an ERA-plus of 120, which means it is 20 percent better than the average of his peers. His WHIP is 1.287. He averages 8.2 strikeouts per nine, and averages 3.1 walks per nine. We put all those numbers in a baseball-reference.com calculation tool, to see which pitchers at age 30 could match or exceed Lester using those criteria.
Here is our list: Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels and Clayton Kershaw. Clemens had the highest WAR in that group, 65.6. Kershaw had the lowest at 37.6. Lester came in at the bottom of that group in WAR.
And just for comparison's sake, we looked up Steve Carlton at age 30 versus Lester. We preface that by stressing that no one here is saying Jon Lester is another Steve Carlton.
Here are the numbers:
And, for the record, here is Carlton for the balance of his career:
Win pct.: .592
Carlton pitched until he was 43. If he had signed a six-year contract after he turned 30, these would have been his numbers over that span:
Statistically, Carlton was an exception -- his best years came after he turned 30. But are the Red Sox certain Lester wouldn't be another exception? Evidently, they're willing to take that chance.