In Game 5, the Dodgers stole two bases against Jon Lester, out of two attempts. Stretch that over, say, a 33-start season, and you’ve got a pitcher who’s given up 66 steals in 66 chances. That pitcher, we’d say, was historically bad at controlling the running game. It would be a huge, distracting problem. The Dodgers did take a little advantage of Lester, which was a part of their plan, and though in the end it wasn’t enough, it was something worth trying.
Yet the Dodgers could’ve pushed it further. And this was a topic of much discussion. The Dodgers danced around, taking incredibly, unprecedentedly aggressive leads, but still they didn’t seize every chance to put the game in motion. Even though Lester clearly has the yips, and everyone knows it, Dodger baserunners still exercised some amount of caution. A seventh-inning screenshot I took will stick with me:
You — you might remember Enrique Hernandez.
August has a post of his own going up soon. It’s also about Lester and the running game, but from a more analytical perspective. In that post, you can expect to see some .gifs of Hernandez shimmying around, but, what the hell, why not double up? Here are some clips of Hernandez in the bottom of the first:
Hernandez was teasing Lester. Baiting Lester. He wasn’t trying to be a prick or anything, but he was trying to at the very least get Lester distracted. Lester stepped off, but there was no throw. There’s never any throw. Which means there wasn’t a great threat to be nabbed. Hernandez didn’t steal. Here, to supplement, is a .gif from the seventh:
Look at that pose. Look at that pose! Joc Pederson is full-on facing second base, while being faced by Jon Lester. Pederson looks like he’s waiting for the starting gun, and were there to be any half-decent pickoff throw, Pederson would be screwed, because he’d have to turn around before retreating. He’s looking Lester literally in the eye. It’s a dare, and Lester did nothing. And, Pederson did nothing. He didn’t steal. The hitter got out.
The Dodgers ran, but the Dodgers could’ve done more running. It might not have been enough to win the game, but it felt like they were giving up opportunities to help themselves. And, very weirdly, at that, since in theory the burden would’ve been on Lester to show he was in control. The Dodgers didn’t force Lester to do much, and here’s a quote from John Smoltz on the game broadcast:
I’m amazed more guys aren’t going, though. I just don’t understand. It’s one thing to make somebody uncomfortable and add value to the guy at the plate by seeing better pitches. But the reality is, he’s not going to first. You get a big enough lead, you go on first movement, and you create stress at second base.
Jon Lester still has the yips. If that weren’t true, we would’ve seen a pickoff. Lester did successfully field a bunt, but for one thing, he bounced his throw, and for another, a bunt isn’t a pickoff. It feels like runners should run like crazy. Even the average ones. Even the slightly below-average ones. It doesn’t make immediate sense why Lester this year allowed fewer steals than, say, Jimmy Nelson. It doesn’t make immediate sense why Lester allowed fewer steals than anybody. But I think there’s one fascinating explanation.
Okay, so there are also some partial explanations. Lester deserves some credit for not being particularly slow to the plate. And David Ross is a terrific battery-mate, because of his ability to quickly throw to any base. Even, or especially, first, on a back-pick. Ross has attempted dozens of back-picks. Ross helps keep things under control. And just so we all understand where we are, Lester did have baseball’s second-highest stolen-base-attempt rate, behind only Noah Syndergaard. It’s not like people haven’t tried to run.
But they haven’t constantly tried to run. And they’ve had only modest success. Now we get to the fun, major explanation. Jon Lester has the yips. Won’t throw to first. Not a threat. The Cubs know this, and opponents know this. But opponents are only somewhat able to internalize it. I don’t think opponents can actually believe what they know.
Because it doesn’t make sense, right? How do you explain the yips? How do you convince yourself, as a baserunner, that that guy on the mound really, legitimately can’t throw to the base where you are, when that same guy on the mound can throw to the plate with extraordinary precision? As a player, you’re taught how to run the bases against left-handed pitchers. You’re taught which moves to look out for, and you know not to run so much, since the pitcher can see you standing right there. I suspect that, when you’re a runner against Lester, you take your lead and you remind yourself that that guy won’t try a pickoff. But then you hover there, and you see him looking at you, all left-handed-like, and you don’t believe your own thoughts. You don’t want to get in a position where he throws over and you look stupid because you wandered out into the middle of nowhere. What lefty can’t throw to first?
This isn’t just some unsupported theory I made up. Consider Andy McCullough, who has dealt with Lester a few times in his day. He tweeted about how the leads players need to take against Lester will make them uncomfortable. Also from McCullough, there’s this nugget, on Eric Hosmer. Hosmer at one point was told to sprint home, because Lester wouldn’t be able to make a good throw to get him. But Hosmer hesitated, because, what? How would that make sense? Hosmer couldn’t believe the advice he was given. There’s no reason to think he’d be unique.
*Lester* is unique. What you can do, in theory, against Lester, you can’t do against anyone else. Take Julio Urias. His pickoff game is fantastic! When Urias is on the mound, you absolutely have to pay close attention at every instant. With Lester, there’s an unbelievable amount of theoretical freedom. There’s too much freedom for players to be able to comprehend.
This might sound insane to you. After all, you know Lester has the yips, yes? Imagine you’re an actual runner, though. Especially a runner in an important game. Or, actually, imagine you’re just a person. You’re behind a door, and in the next room, there’s a sandwich, and there’s a grizzly bear. I’ve already told you that the grizzly bear won’t attack you. I’ve assured you the bear isn’t aggressive, and you aren’t going to be hurt, and you can just go have the sandwich. It’s a delicious hot sandwich. I’ve shown you a few videos of other people going in and getting sandwiches. Sometimes the bear roars. It certainly looks menacing. Acts like a mean bear. Hasn’t hurt anybody. How confident are you going to be about getting that sandwich? You know all about grizzly bears. You know about attacks by average grizzly bears. How much are you willing to believe that this particular bear is unusual? How much are you willing to believe this bear will remain unusual for however long it takes you to go retrieve a sandwich?
If a runner made some kind of mistake against Jon Lester, he wouldn’t get literally mauled to death. So the stakes are lower. But everyone is still programmed to not look like an idiot. Get picked off by several feet, and you look like an idiot. So runners are more conservative than they have to be, or even than they should be, and what makes that funny is it also protects Lester from looking like an idiot. If teams just constantly ran against Lester, he would look helpless. Yet his problem is so bizarre that in a weird way it sort of keeps opponents honest.
If more pitchers had Lester’s problem, it would be easier to take advantage of them, because the problem would be more familiar. Lester gets some sort of indirect benefit for being the only one. He still gets run on, but he could be run on so much more. The leads could be even bigger. The teasing could be even worse.
Someone really ought to push it. Someone ought to force Lester to try a throw, if only to see what happens. The runner might have to do something comical, and the play could turn into an ineffective disaster, but what’s one out, for science? Especially when the upside could be almost unlimited extra bases? Lester hasn’t quite had his boundaries challenged. He should be challenged, but the reality of it is that it’s the playoffs, and every out is important, and players are naturally cautious. It would be daring to force Lester to make the move, and most players wouldn’t have the stomach, given what’s on the line. What a world we live in.
Jon Lester threw seven innings of one-run baseball on Thursday. His season ERA was 2.44. It’s hard to believe there’s this simple thing he can’t do. It’s just too hard to truly believe it.
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.