The Math Behind Jon Lester’s Harmless Oddities

Jeff Sullivan wrote a post this morning about Jon Lester and the running game. He mentioned that I’d also be writing a post about Jon Lester and the running game, but with a greater emphasis on the numbers sideĀ of it. This is that post.

Before we get to the actual numbers, a note about Jon Lester himself. In a way, for much of his career, Lester almost been consistent to a fault. To the point where his greatness borders on boring, or forgettable. In nine years since taking on a full workload, he’s made between 31 and 33 starts in each season, always 191 and 219 innings. He had a three-year run of his ERA- being 71, then 73, then 75, and four of his nine FIP- have been between 73-76. His fastball has sat between 91.8 and 93.5 miles per hour — right at or below average — in each of those nine years. Lester’s had his two best seasons by ERA in the last three years, but even then, his FIP- figures have read: 75, 75, 82. Just consistent ol’ Jon Lester. Nothing remarkable here.

And yet, somehow, the longer Lester remains consistent, the more we realize he’s one of the most fascinating and unique specimens in the game. We realize he simply refuses to attempt a pickoff throw to first base, and that’s because when he’s forced to field a ground ball and make an overhand throw to first, he just literally can’t do it. The pitcher just cannot throw. We realize that he’s maybe the worst hitter, ever, like in MLB history. And so we watch each one of his starts with amazement, as the gifted, elite athlete is unable to hide his inexplicable ineptitudes, and as the opposition just… fails to exploit them?

Give the Dodgers credit. They sure as hell tried. Kind of. At the very least, they sure as hell put put all of Lester’s bizarre quirks front and center stage in their 8-4 NLCS Game 5 loss on Thursday night. It’s just, none of it mattered.

The Dodgers wasted no time letting Lester know that they knew. This was the first pitch Lester threw:

That’s Dodgers leadoff man and left fielder, Enrique Hernandez, feigning bunt while Lester threw a first-pitch ball. I’m not sure whether Hernandez actually intended to ever lay down a bunt in this at-bat, but the thinking goes: you show bunt, you make Lester think about fielding, and then, subsequently, throwing, and you’ve gotten in his head, therefore making him give something less than his full attention to executing the actual pitch at hand. Who knows how much validity that line of thinking has, but, hey, Hernandez showed bunt on all four pitches, and Lester threw balls on all four. Hernandez found himself on first base.

And then he found himself getting gradually farther from first base:

And he danced:

And he confidently toyed with Lester:

And he pretended to steal:

And… he never actually stole. Hernandez did all his dancing and strutting and toying and letting everyone in the park know that he knew about Lester’s big, embarrassing flaw, while Lester struck out Justin Turner and Hernandez stood on first base.

Hernandez eventually advanced. He advanced exactly one base on a single, clear as day off the bat, by Corey Seager:

One way or another, it’s hard to fathom how Hernandez isn’t on third base here. Despite the fact that Lester has attempted precisely three pickoff throws since April 13 of last year and hasn’t even attempted a single pickoff since July 24 of this year, Hernandez takes a several steps back toward first after getting his lead out to about 20 feet. You see his body when the pitch is thrown; he gets no secondary lead, has no momentum.

And the Dodgers continued this trend all game. Here’s Seager in the sixth, his momentum taking him back toward first while the pitch is thrown:

On the surface, it’s baffling. Why take the lead in the first place if you’re (a) not going to do anything with it, and (b) are just going to retreat when the pitch is thrown, killing both momentum and your distance to second base? Well, the latter has everything to do with catcher David Ross. Ross loves to throw down to first, and he’s got the arm to get the outs, and so the runners have to respect it. OK, so then why take this big lead in the first place? Why not either take a normal lead with a gigantic secondary, knowing you’ve got no change of being caught in the middle of a deceptive Lester pickoff, or just get a running head start and take the bag?

Well, let’s run some math. The problem here is, Lester and Ross are quick. All of the following information comes from Statcast, provided by Mike Petriello. Lester was getting the ball to the plate between 1.1 and 1.2 seconds last night, and Ross’s average pop time for the season was 1.95, which ranked sixth among 83 catchers with at least five throws to second base. Both those figures could be considered plus to elite on a scouting scale, and as a battery, their ~3.15 time to second base is hard to beat.

Now, Hernandez has only ever stolen two career bases, and one was a botched pickoff attempt, so there’s not much in the way of speed time data for him. But the league average, on successful steals from first to second, is around 3.7, and the league-average lead is 11 feet, meaning our hypothetical league-average runner is covering the remaining 79 feet in those 3.7 seconds, putting him at 21.4 feet per second.

But Hernandez wasn’t getting a league-average lead. He was getting up to 17 feet on Lester. That leaves just 73 feet, and, giving him league-average speed, that gets him to second in… 3.4 seconds. Lester and Ross have him beat by more than two-tenths of a second. Even a league-average runner with a 20-foot lead is getting beat by more than a tenth. But maybe Hernandez — or any other base runner, really, Hernandez is just a placeholder here — is faster than league-average. Someone like Jarrod Dyson can go first-to-second as fast as 3.0 seconds, so let’s put our guy right in between, at 3.4 seconds with an average, 11-foot lead. Ramp that lead up to the 17 feet Dodgers runners were taking on Thursday, and that gets us to second in… 3.15 seconds. Exactly Lester and Ross’s time.

A quick pitcher and a quick catcher can go a long way. Runners may have stolen 28 bases while Lester was on the mound this year, the third-highest total allowed by any pitcher, but they were also thrown out 13 times, and a 68% success rate actually reflects well on Lester and Ross.

What about the bunts? It wasn’t just Hernandez who led off the game by showing bunt. The Dodgers showed bunt against Lester more than a dozen times. Adrian Gonzalez bunted out to a second baseman who started the play in the outfield grass in the seventh. Joc Pederson missed a bunt to go down 0-2 in the count in the fifth inning, and then hit the ball 110 mph on the next pitch. And this came after Pederson actually laid down a bunt in the second:

On the one hand, I mean, you see that throw. On the other, apparently that’s something Lester actually worked on this year, and when you look at the play logs, you find that Lester’s fielded 20 ground balls or bunts this year, recorded 19 outs, and committed zero throwing errors. At a certain point, it started to feel like some of the Dodgers’ best hitters were taking the bat out of their own hands.

Even though another one of the bunts Lester fielded this year went like this…

… and looked like a problem, it wasn’t actually a problem, just like Pederson’s bunt wasn’t actually a problem — just like Lester’s inability to as much as even attempt a pickoff throw sure looks like a problem, until it just isn’t. None of us will ever truly understand any of this, but that’s how it goes.

Greg Maddux never held baserunners, either. He allowed 547 steals in his career, and up to as many as 37 in a single season. He just didn’t care, because he was good. Over the last three years, Lester’s allowed one of the lowest rates of baserunners in the game. He and Ross are exceptionally quick in their deliveries and exchanges, making it difficult for even above-average baserunners with gigantic leads to steal successfully. Hesitate on the steal, and Ross might nab you at first. Try to challenge Lester with a bunt, and, well, bunting is hard, and he might field it in a position to just underhand it to first, anyway. The thing about trying to get into Jon Lester’s head is, you spend too much time trying to do it, and you might wind up getting in your own.

We hoped you liked reading The Math Behind Jon Lester’s Harmless Oddities by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Otter
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Member
Otter

It sure sort of felt like the Dodgers were in their own head more than they were in Lester’s last night. The Gonzalez bunt in the 7th, especially, was trying too hard imo.

BritishCub
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BritishCub

i think that one wasn’t just about jon but how deep baez was being played to Gonzalez he was near 200ft out i recall the broadcast showing. Plus i think they were hoping a man on in the 7th may chase Jon

Wu-Bacca
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Wu-Bacca

Yes, I agree with Otter that the Dodgers seemed to be in their own head, and yes, Gonzalez was out on the bunt, so you could say it was de facto the “wrong” gamble. But it took a spectacular play from Baez to get him. On that bunt he may be safe – what – 40% of the time? Those are pretty good OBP odds – perhaps enough to justify his decision to bunt, even if the outcome didn’t work out.