Jon Lester Controlled the Running Game

It was a few years ago when we all learned about Jon Lester’s pick-off problem. There was speculation that the Royals might take advantage in their one-game playoff against the A’s. The Royals could run, after all. And, against Lester that evening, Royals base-stealers went 3-for-4. In the one failure, Billy Butler just wandered off first base for some reason.

Lester’s same problem was supposed to be a major factor in the current World Series. The Indians were supposed to be able to take better advantage than the Giants and Dodgers. I suppose it’s possible that Lester could show up in relief in Game 7, but assuming that doesn’t happen, the Series is in the books as far as Lester on the field is concerned. Twice, the Indians were successful stealing against him. Twice, the Indians got thrown out. Jon Lester wasn’t exploited.

In the first game, Francisco Lindor went 1-for-2, as a runner. Sunday night, Rajai Davis was 1-for-1, and Lindor went 0-for-1. Davis stole in the sixth, and he scored to narrow the deficit to one. Lindor tried to steal in the sixth, but it didn’t work. It would’ve been a pretty big advance, but Lindor was done in in part by skill and in part by psychology.

Here’s Davis. David Ross couldn’t handle the baseball on the transfer, which is also how Lindor stole in Game 1.

And now here’s Lindor:

It’s time to dig into this! Quickly, you might notice something. Here’s Davis as Lester began to throw:


Here’s Lindor at almost exactly the same time:


Okay, that’s one factor — Davis had a better lead by about two and a half feet. In other words, Davis was about 4% closer to second base, based on the distance there from the secondary lead. Clearly, a huge factor is that, with Davis, Ross couldn’t even get off a throw. Ross got off a perfect throw with Lindor running. Javier Baez applied a perfect tag. Lester was even about 5% faster getting the ball to Ross in the first place. Compared to Davis, Lindor arrived at second base about 0.2 – 0.3 seconds slower. That’s huge, as steals are concerned, and so Lindor was out without so much as a replay review.

Lindor getting thrown out reduced the Indians’ odds of winning by about 3.7 percentage points. Had Lindor gotten in there safely, it would’ve increased the Indians’ odds of winning by about 1.9 percentage points, so, the break-even rate there is 66%. It made sense for Lindor to go if he believed he’d be safe at least two-thirds of the time. That feels like a safe assumption, when you’re Francisco Lindor, running against Jon Lester. It’s supposed to be nearly automatic, right? Even Joe Maddon conceded as much before the series began.

But not only did the Cubs execute with perfection — Lindor just couldn’t bring himself to go crazy. This is the same thing I wrote about a week and a half ago. Based on his lead and jump, sure, you can see how the Cubs threw Lindor out. But why didn’t he take an even bigger lead, to get an even better jump? Lindor simply would’ve felt too vulnerable. He would’ve felt naked out there, doing something you’re never supposed to do against a lefty. Jon Lester looks the part, and you have to really, really, truly believe he’s not throwing over. Lindor couldn’t accept that, even though Lester had just bluffed.

Go back to Game 1. This is nuts.

Lindor saw this for himself. In Game 1, he would’ve been an easy out, but Lester couldn’t do anything, so Lindor could scamper back. Lindor observed firsthand that Lester couldn’t and wouldn’t throw over. It’s so easy to sit here now and say “Just go! Just go! Who cares!” But that sells the psychology short. Lester is protected by the uniqueness of his pick-off problem. Francisco Lindor probably could’ve had a way bigger lead, and, given that lead, he probably could’ve stolen second base. It would’ve been a pretty important steal, with Mike Napoli batting. But Lindor fell into the same trap most runners fall into. Jon Lester’s problem doesn’t make sense. Therefore, it’s mighty difficult to believe.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Surely it would be worth it to at least once just sit halfway between 1st and 2nd (literally 45 feet) and if you get picked off, accept that as the price of testing the true depth of the yips? Otherwise you’d have definitive evidence that you needn’t be scared, and that would trump the psychology (since the psychology stems from the fact that no one has actually taken a non-standard lead — just try it once and accept the one out as the price!)

7 years ago
Reply to  bunslow

There was at least one instance (against the Reds?) during the season where Lester got a pick-off exactly the way you described. The runner was about halfway, and Lester just ran at him and got him in a run-down.

Dave T
7 years ago
Reply to  bunslow

I’m pretty sure at something close to 45 feet that Lester would step off, run at the baserunner, and then underhand it to a base with a good chance of an out.

But I argued in a comment to a prior post by Jeff that other NL Central teams should push strategies of “take an absolutely massive lead and steal on first movement”. Don’t know if such leads would extend to 25 feet or 30 feet, but give it a try if you’re a division rival in a regular season game. The second part – actually stealing – is key to avoid the risk of the backpick throw from the catcher. Other NL Central teams have the expectation of facing Lester roughly 4 times per year for several years, so there’s possible upside to offset the “experimental” losses of losing a couple baserunners in one game.