While Colby Lewis isn’t quite officially retired, his days with the Texas Rangers are almost certainly done. While Lewis has never been an ace, or even a true top-of-the-rotation pitcher, he has a special place in the history of the franchise.
Lewis was the Rangers’ first-round pick in 1999, going 38th overall, two years off Tommy John surgery as a senior in high school. As a prospect he was an exciting player, consistently throwing in what was then considered the hardest range for a starter, sitting 94-95. Lewis struggled with command, but made it the major leagues by 2002, throwing in 15 games for the Rangers. In 2003, he started 23 games for Texas, and despite an ERA around seven, he was back with the big league team to begin 2004.
Of course, that potential flamed out, it seemed, when Lewis underwent rotator cuff surgery in 2004 after three starts. The Rangers placed Lewis on waivers that October, and the Detroit Tigers claimed the righty, hoping that something of that hard fastball would still be there when he finished his recovery. After bouncing between the minors and the majors for Detroit and later, for Oakland, along with time spent with Washington and Kansas City, time so brief it doesn’t show up on Baseball-Reference, Lewis headed to Japan, and many thought his time in Major League Baseball would be over, yet another busted top pitching prospect.
However, Japan is really where Lewis’ story begins. While pitching for the Hiroshima Carp, Lewis reinvented himself as a finesse-first, velocity-second pitcher with a biting slider, and put up incredibly strong numbers over two seasons in 2008 and 2009. Those numbers caught the attention of the team that originally drafted Lewis — the Texas Rangers.
In 2010, the Rangers weren’t desperate on the pitching front, but they weren’t loaded with excess, either. C.J. Wilson had emerged the year prior as an exciting pitcher, and the Rangers transitioned him from a closing role to a starting one. The combination of Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter would do to hold down the third and fourth spot, but Lewis’ re-emergence as a pitcher who could actually get outs was much-needed after the departure of Brandon McCarthy and Vicente Padilla. And strange as it may have seemed, Lewis wasn’t a band-aid or a stop-gap. The player released by the Nationals in 2007 was the subject of a bidding war, which the team that drafted him won, to the tune of a two-year deal worth $5 million.
Until then, it was all a nice story. Sure, Lewis came back from Japan, had a good homecoming, and was ready to contribute meaningfully to the team in Arlington. It was how meaningful that contribution was that solidified his legacy in the minds of Rangers fans. After a rocky start to the postseason, that ALDS Game 3 against Tampa Bay where he walked five batters in five innings, Lewis came up strong in the ALCS, and pitched eight incredibly strong innings in the Game 6 that saw the Rangers beat the Yankees and move on to the franchise’s first World Series.
Lewis took home the team’s only World Series win in 2010, too, a consolation prize for being run over by the beginnings of the dynasty Giants. Since then, he’s pitched in every Rangers’ postseason appearance save the Wild Card game of 2012, and been a rotation staple even as he’s continued to lose velocity off the once-fearsome fastball and suffered from one injury or another.
When he’s been healthy, though, he’s been reliable, if never as exciting as it was once hoped he’d be. In these last few years, he made a name for himself by still getting outs as his fastball began to drop into the upper-Jered-Weaver range, purely on location and his ability to set up his slider. In 2015, Lewis came within an inning of a perfect game, but fate would not have it be so, and he ended up throwing a two-hitter. 2015 was full of frustrations for Lewis in many ways — despite a solid performance through the entirety of the season, the front office left him out of the rotation in the ALDS, and he got his only work in the third, fourth and fifth innings of Game 4.
Lewis used that as fuel to come back for 2016 and was vocal about his desire to prove himself to the team that had been his home for so long. Unfortunately, that attempt ended in the only way that his career would have it – an injury in June took him away from the majors until September, and he never managed to get back on the right side of things in his last three regular season starts.
No one’s arguing that Lewis is one of the best pitchers of all time, or anything other than a rotation mainstay – he’s always been a little hurt, a little lacking, a little not-quite-what-could-have-been. It’s undeniable, though, that he has one of baseball’s most interesting stories, a tale of reinvention and persistence that exemplifies the best of baseball’s stories.
Whether or not Lewis is done for good has yet to be seen. No matter what happens next, though, his legend will live on in Texas.