Jon Lester’s Favorite Strikeout

This post is centered around a controversial call. Maybe I’m being mealy-mouthed. This post is centered around a bad call. As such, I want to make something clear right now. I don’t root for the Indians, and I don’t root for the Cubs. My team of choice is not very good, and it’s not alive in the playoffs. Hasn’t been in forever! This post is not about me complaining, and it’s not about excusing the Indians’ loss, or asserting that the Cubs got lucky. A game result comes out of hundreds of events, and had this particular event gone Cleveland’s way, chances are they still would’ve come up short. We all good here? I just want to point something out, and introduce some context. Sorry if it makes your emotions flare up.

Game 5, fifth inning, 3-1 Cubs. Runner on third, one out, full count on the hitter. The hitter was Brandon Guyer, and the pitcher was Jon Lester. Lester executed the pitch he wanted. The second out went up on the scoreboard.

The funny thing about that being the pitch Lester wanted — the pitch was more of a ball than a strike.

Lester nailed David Ross‘ target. That much can’t be argued. What also can’t be argued is that Ross’ target was off the plate in the first place. Tough calls are nothing unusual, but they mean the most in full counts in close games. When Guyer was hitting, the Indians’ win expectancy was right around 29%. Had that pitch been called a ball, as it should’ve been, the Indians’ odds of winning would’ve increased to 32%. The strikeout dropped their odds of winning instead, all the way to 22%. That’s a swing of 10 percentage points. That swing is huge. Jose Ramirez’s solo homer was worth 11 percentage points.

Yes, I know, having stuff like this pointed out isn’t fun. Cubs fans feel like something is being taken away from them. Indians fans feel like something was taken away from them. Sorry! Even zanier, Lester got a worse call against Guyer earlier in the same series. From the sixth inning in Game 1:

The replay tells you what you need to know:

The pitch was literally on the chalk, so Guyer got screwed. But the win-expectancy swing there was under two percentage points, so in the end no one minded too much. The Game 5 call was a bigger deal.

But we’re not just dealing with freak called strikeouts here. Those aren’t necessarily good strikeouts, but Lester and Ross love those strikeouts. Here are all of Lester’s called strikeouts since 2014, with Game 5’s against Guyer in red:


Here’s the same plot, but with Game 1’s against Guyer in blue:


You see how they kind of blend in? Lester records a ton of arm-side called strikeouts off the plate. Over the last three years, Lester ranks 13th in rate of two-strike pitches taken for strikes. But he moves all the way up into second in rate of two-strike pitches taken for strikes off the plate in that neighborhood. Over the whole PITCHf/x era, Lester is the easy league leader in total number of these called strikeouts. And here’s a year-to-year breakdown:

Jon Lester Arm-Side Called Strikeouts
Season No. of Such Strikeouts MLB Rank MLB Rank, Total Pitches
2008 10 25 22
2009 14 6 15
2010 23 1 23
2011 17 2 45
2012 16 2 9
2013 17 2 4
2014 26 1 7
2015 19 4 27
2016 17 4 21
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Called strikeouts only qualify if they were off the plate. Regular-season numbers shown.

An established, long-standing pattern doesn’t make the calls more correct, but it does make them less surprising. Lester loves that strikeout, and while he couldn’t get it without the umpires, it’s a credit to his own command, and it’s a credit to his catchers, which have often just been Ross. Lester can repeatedly hit that spot, and throughout the whole of baseball history, pitchers have been rewarded for being so accurate. I know that, from a certain perspective, it seems unfair. Strikes should be strikes, and balls should be balls. But it’s at least Lester’s own ability that leads him to a lot of these strikeouts, and while Brandon Guyer had every right to be annoyed, he couldn’t have been too astonished. Not in Game 1, and then, certainly, not Sunday night.

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

How do these pitch mapping systems deal with pitch movement? Especially with breaking pitches, the ball moves in three dimensions over the plate. How can a dot represent accurate “location”?

7 years ago
Reply to  jiveballer

I believe they usually record the intersection of the pitch with the vertical plane across the front edge of the plate.

7 years ago
Reply to  bunslow

Thats kind of what I figured. Seems like the tv pitch locations are more based on where the ball is caught. They ought to be able to highlight the duration that the pitch crosses the entire plate.