Jon Lester Had a Game for the Ages

This is the worst offensive season for pitchers on record. It’s close, and the season isn’t over, and Madison Bumgarner has spent a lot of time on the disabled list, but, league-wide, pitchers so far have combined for a wRC+ of -21. It’s never before been that low over a full season. It makes enough sense; pitchers are presently better than ever at pitching, and they’re less incentivized than ever to know how to hit. This is the age of specialization. Players who specialize in pitching can’t be expected to handle the bat.

Jon Lester has been a bad hitter, even relative to other pitchers. Over his career he’s batted more than 200 times, and his wRC+ is -40. You might remember that he opened his career 0-for-66, which no player had ever done. Lester is bad at hitting, among pitchers. Pitchers are bad at hitting, and worse than ever. Given an ordinary game, you’d expect that Jon Lester, the hitter, would go quietly o-fer. The Cubs wouldn’t even care that much.

Monday night, Lester stole a base. It was the first pitcher steal of the year. Lester also drew a walk. Lester also hit a double. In one game, Lester had a steal, a walk, and an extra-base hit. Here’s the entire table of pitcher-games meeting the same criteria since 1950:

Qualifying Games Since 1950
Pitcher Game Date Team Opponent
Jon Lester 7/17/2017 CHC ATL
Edwin Jackson 8/3/2016 SDP MIL
Darren Dreifort 5/1/1999 LAD PHI
Steve Renko 5/22/1973 MON CHC
Jim Kaat 7/30/1971 MIN NYY
Don Gullett 4/16/1970 CIN LAD
Tom Seaver 5/17/1967 NYM ATL
Robin Roberts 5/20/1951 PHI PIT
Fritz Dorish 6/2/1950 SLB WSH
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Pitcher-batters with a walk, a steal, and an extra-base hit.

Nine games. Technically, it has been less than a year since the last one, but then you get a spread of 17 years. Then you get a spread of 26 years. Consider this a decently-rated fun fact. Jon Lester, the hitter, kind of filled up the box score.

Everything Lester did, he did to Julio Teheran. We should examine things in order. To the top of the third we go, with the game still scoreless.

A few things there might jump out to you. One, it’s a legitimate double, a liner off the fence. Sort of nearly a home run. Two, I don’t think the pitch could’ve been any more down the middle. Teheran clearly just wanted to get ahead, and he wasn’t pitching with any particular fear. I doubt he thought Lester was going to offer. Related to that, three: The double came against the first pitch. The first pitch of the at-bat, and therefore the first pitch in the game that Lester had seen. Pitchers are frequently patient, because swinging does them little good. They understand that more than anyone. Lester took this chance to seize upon Teheran’s overconfidence. Who gets other pitchers quite like other pitchers?

As you might already know, Statcast does think Lester has some life in his bat. Since 2015, he’s hit 18 batted balls at least 100 miles per hour, tying him for third place among pitchers. This double was hit at 103. That doesn’t mean Lester isn’t bad, but it does mean he swings with real bat speed. That couldn’t make Teheran un-embarrassed. When defenders make errors, they frequently pick at or stare into their gloves. It’s as if they want to convey that it was the glove’s fault, not the player’s. Teheran treated the double like an error. The glove didn’t do anything wrong.

Moments later, Teheran frowned. He literally frowned. We all know what a frown is supposed to mean, but nobody actually frowns. Frowns are only ever seen in cartoons. Have you ever tried to frown? It takes work. You have to activate unfamiliar muscle sequences. It’s something you’d have to practice, so that you could master the proper frown, and then people would say, whoa, you’re frowning, that’s weird. It’s weird to see a frown, but I guess there aren’t many things in a baseball game more frown-worthy than giving up a first-pitch double to Jon Lester.

The Cubs dugout interpreted the moment for what it was.

In order, from left to right:

  • What!
  • What
  • This is also humiliating for me
  • What?

Ultimately, Lester was stranded at third. He came up again in the top of the fifth, and he neither walked nor stole a base. He struck out looking, which wasn’t very helpful, but I don’t want to just cruise past this at-bat without showing another video. The first time Lester came up, he crushed a first-pitch fastball. Teheran might’ve allowed that into his head.

Lester was this close to also reaching on a hit-by-pitch.

Lester was giving Teheran some issues. On to the top of the sixth. Two outs, runner on third. Lester took a first-pitch ball. Then he took the second pitch. It was also called a ball.

I’ve never been more comfortable and confident interpreting the body language of total strangers. Teheran thought he threw a good strike. Tyler Flowers thought he caught a good strike. CB Bucknor thought, ehh, I’m in a mood. So the count ran to 2-and-0, and, shortly, the count ran to 4-and-0. The subsequent pitches weren’t close. Teheran might’ve grown too frustrated. Alternatively, Teheran might’ve just been pitching like a bad pitcher.

Lester at least made it look like he thought about attacking on 2-and-0:

That would’ve been dumb, but I don’t want to get on a guy for doing something he didn’t do. And at 3-and-0, Lester dropped the act. Not only did he not swing — he actively stepped away from the plate before the pitch was even released.

Jon Lester walked, and he walked on four pitches. It’s actually the second time he’s done that this year. It’s the fourth time he’s done that since 2015. That’s twice as many as any other pitcher. Jon Lester, by a very loose definition of terms, is the king of pitcher-batters drawing four-pitch walks.

The walk put runners on the corners, and up came Ben Zobrist, who is an actual hitter. Nothing happened until the count went to two strikes. Between pitches, Lester, Freddie Freeman, and base coach Brandon Hyde all shared a laugh, as if they were friends. As if one side wasn’t about to take advantage of the other.

Freeman: Wouldn’t it be funny if your slow ass tried to steal?
Lester: haha
Hyde: haha
Freeman: haha

Freeman backed away to play defense.

Hyde: :whispers:
Hyde: Your slow ass should try to steal.

Lester stole without so much as drawing a throw. That video isn’t conclusive. You can only infer that Lester has taken off. Here’s the slow-motion replay:

I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to guess this wasn’t Lester’s idea. What does Lester know about baserunning? He barely knows anything about even being on base. This was, of course, Lester’s first-ever steal, and he was probably informed by Hyde that Teheran and the defenders weren’t paying attention. Plus, Teheran was about 1.5 seconds to home plate. Lester would need some convincing in order to take off. The game was close; his out mattered. Lester was convinced that there was no way he’d ever be gunned down. There was a free base right in front of him.

Lester wasn’t held on. And after he took off, well — well, there was nowhere for Flowers to throw.

Nobody budged. Lester moved up into scoring position. It was the first major-league pitcher steal of the season. One pitch later, Zobrist sent a shot down the first-base line that would’ve been able to score Lester, had Freeman not made a sensational diving stop. The inning ended, Freeman perhaps having been motivated by the embarrassing steal. It didn’t come back to haunt them. Lester doubled, walked, and stole, but he didn’t cross home plate. At least that had been prevented.

What had not been prevented was the statistical accumulation. Outcomes be damned, Lester did something very few pitchers have done. He did a combination of things, I suppose, very few pitchers have done. It doesn’t mean anything — it doesn’t mean Lester is some kind of offensive force. But on this one night, he was indistinguishable from a table-setter. Pitchers don’t do what Jon Lester did.

Also, the Cubs won. Lester allowed a run and three hits over seven sparkling innings. That kind of game, he’s had a lot more.

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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Fun article. Nice work!