Jon Lester Never Throws Over, But

It’s playoff time, which means every game matters, which means every little detail matters, which means every little detail gets analyzed. We all have to give you information, and you all have to talk about the information, and then together we’ll all pretend like not everything is almost literally a coin flip. We’re here to talk about edges and x-factors, and left unsaid is that almost every team is pretty much even and the winner will have been both good and fortunate.

In a short while the Royals will host the A’s in the AL’s wild-card playoff, and the detail du jour: an incredible Jon Lester stat. I don’t know who had it first, but I saw it first here, in the comments, left by Jon Roegele. All of this season, Jon Lester didn’t attempt a pickoff. Last year, he attempted seven, and the year before that, he attempted five. The year before that, he attempted 70. The Royals are an extremely aggressive team on the bases, so this seems like the kind of thing that might be taken advantage of.

It’s almost inconceivable, almost impossible to explain. You figure a guy won’t really vary his pickoff frequency. Between 2009 – 2011, the leader in pickoff attempts was Justin Verlander. Between 2012 – 2014, the leader in pickoff attempts was Justin Verlander. That first set of three years, Lester attempted 247 pickoffs. The last three years, he’s attempted a dozen pickoffs, tying him with Donnie Veal, Phillippe Aumont, Michael Tonkin, and Charlie Leesman. Lester didn’t change teams until this past summer. Nothing dramatic should’ve changed, but something dramatic did change, or at least, something forgettable changed dramatically. From the standpoint of someone who loves playing with numbers, I’m fascinated by this sudden and whopping change in Lester’s approach.

He’s not the only guy who’s dramatically cut his pickoffs. Between those sets of three years, Lester’s pickoff total dropped by 235. Mark Buehrle’s dropped by 244. Buehrle might have better control of the running game than anyone, and here’s a comparative table:

Year Lester Buehrle
2009 79 124
2010 98 192
2011 70 171
2012 5 105
2013 7 90
2014 0 48

People know better than to try against Buehrle, and we all know Buehrle doesn’t like wasting time. This has actually helped him work even faster. But Lester’s dropoff feels a lot more meaningful, because he’s dropped down to zero. Not one throw over, in a full year with a full slate of starts and innings.

It feels like something of a vulnerability. The last three years, attempted base-stealers have been successful against Lester 77% of the time, against an average of about 73%. And Lester’s left-handed, so it seems like he’s losing a lot of his lefty advantage, if not actually all of it. Here’s the way Buster Olney talks about Lester, pickoffs, and the running game:

But a different narrative has developed recently among some evaluators: that Lester is not comfortable throwing to first base. He allowed five stolen bases over his final three starts of the season, including four to the Mariners on Sept. 14. The Royals do not hit homers and they don’t draw walks, but they led the majors in stolen bases — by a wide margin — and figure to be aggressive on the basepaths tonight.

“Not comfortable throwing to first base.” Lester doesn’t have a history of racking up a ton of throwing errors, but he does have a history of articles talking about him working on his move. From March 2012:

This week, Lester talked about the work he has been doing on his pickoff move, and why it matters.
[…]
“Those kind of got away from me. I’m trying to get back to doing one thing. That’s the hardest part, just knowing I’ve got to throw the ball over to first and doing the same stuff to do it. It’s something that’s important, something you have to do, something you have to feel comfortable doing.”

That same spring training:

Just a couple weeks ago:

Starter Jon Lester spent part of the early afternoon on the mound at the Coliseum, working on his pickoff move. He threw shutout ball for six innings Sunday, but the Mariners stole four times against him and catcher Derek Norris. Before that, he hadn’t allowed a steal since his trade from the Red Sox. “He’s been so quick over the years, he really hasn’t had to throw over there,” manager Bob Melvin said. “So he came out early to work on that with some guys getting extended leads.”

Lester knows the pickoff isn’t a strength. He knows it’s important to control the running game, and he does know about changing speeds and looks. Something important to understand, though: pickoffs, usually, aren’t about picking runners off. It’s more about keeping runners close. Lester this season didn’t attempt even one single pickoff, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t, whenever he wants. The name of the game, mostly, is deterrence, and the last three years, runners have tried to steal against Lester in 5.5% of opportunities. The three years before that, when Lester picked off quite often, runners tried to steal in 9.1% of opportunities. So even though Lester’s not throwing over anymore, he’s still keeping runners closer, and the average is a steal attempt in about 5.9% of opportunities. Lester hasn’t been easily exploited. Some games maybe he’s been easier to read, but on the whole, he hasn’t needed to throw pickoffs, because the runners aren’t going crazy.

Being a lefty, Lester’s looking right at first base when he comes set and holds the ball in his glove:

LesterSet

That’s from this year, and while Lester didn’t throw over, and never threw over, nothing was stopping him except himself. If the runner had taken a massive lead, Lester could’ve thrown over quite easily. It’s not about the pickoff as much as it’s about the threat of a pickoff, and that’s where Lester gets to make up for the fact that maybe his pickoff move isn’t so great. Also, he’s not slow to the plate. So stealing requires a particularly good jump.

Lester, still, is more vulnerable than a normal southpaw. He allows more steals than a normal southpaw, and if I’m the Royals, I’m instructing my quick runners to take aggressive leads, just to see. See how far you can push it. See if you can draw a throw, or see if Lester is truly hesitant. The Royals like to run, and they should give it due consideration, given the opportunities. But Lester is not a guy who’s easy to steal a base against. He’s a guy who hasn’t thrown a ball over. From a statistical standpoint, that’s amazing, but from an in-game standpoint, that means surprisingly little. And given that the Royals have a weak lineup, the A’s might be unusually willing to call for a pitch-out, and then a well-timed one of those can kill an attempt where it stands.

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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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Jon Roegele
Guest

I did a quick check to see how out of the ordinary Lester was in 2014. Here are this year’s IP leaders with no pickoff attempts:

Jon Lester, 219.2
Matt Stites, 33
Kyuji Fujikawa, 13
Chris Rusin, 12.2
Rob Rasmussen, 11.1