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October 25, 2016

Rubbing Mud

What We Really Know About Lester's Yips

by Matthew Trueblood

The last time he faced his former manager, Jon Lester spun an old-fashioned gem, in an old-fashioned Monday afternoon game at Wrigley Field. It was August of 2015, and the Cubs were hosting the Indians in a wrong-footed getaway-day game, forced into the schedule on what had been an off day for both teams after rain washed out a contest in June.

Lester pitched 8 ⅔ innings and nearly beat the Tribe 1-0, but ended up allowing the tying run before departing. Kris Bryant won the game with an opposite-field walk-off home run in the next half inning. The character of Lester’s effort was strange, though. He scattered six hits, a walk, and two hit batsmen over his long outing. It’s not normal, in today’s MLB, for a pitcher to allow nine baserunners in a start and still nearly complete the outing with just a single tally on the board.

Part of that is the increasing frequency of extra-base hits, relative to singles. Part is the move away from allowing starters to get into the opposing batting order a fourth time, barring truly dazzling work. The strangest thing in this particular case, however, was that Lester got away with allowing all those baserunners, and still held his formidable opponents in check. Ever since the Wild Card game some 10 months before the one against the Indians, Lester wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. He was broken, the guy with the yips, the one whose only chance to keep opponents from stealing bases was to keep them off the bases altogether.

Two starts before the Cleveland game, Lester had allowed five steals to the Brewers. Two starts before that, four, to the Rockies. That baserunner pressure helped both teams get to the Cubs’ co-ace. As the Indians slogged toward a shutout, though, they kept putting runners on base—where they stood stone still. They made zero attempts to steal bases. Terry Francona never ordered a steal against the most steal-prone pitcher in baseball. Then, after stroking the RBI single that knocked Lester out of the game, Carlos Santana stole second base off Hector Rondon.

Those who have watched Lester over the past two years know there are a few bins into which different teams fall when it comes to using his apparent inability to throw well to the bases against him. The Brewers, Reds, and Rockies have generally done it well. The Pirates, Padres, and Cardinals have generally psyched themselves out instead of Lester. The Giants and Mets have generally been too slow, old, or injured to run much against him anyway.

Virtually every team has had at least one or two games in which they stole a base (or tried) at almost every chance—but only because they got hardly any chances. In Lester’s whole career since his quasi-weakness has been laid bare, that start against the Indians stands as the most puzzling, most stark example of a team having a great many chances to run aggressively, but not doing it, and not even seeming to consider it.

Now that Lester is going to face Francona and the 2016 Indians at least once with the stakes as high as they could possibly be, let’s try to explain that strange day.

What Francona Knows (Or Believes)

Firstly, remember this: Francona never managed a version of Lester with the yips. There’s no inside info here. When Francona was the Red Sox’s manager, Lester allowed pretty low stolen base totals, threw strongly and accurately to the bases when needed, and generally had no major mental block, known or unknown. In fact, here’s the first theory I want to advance for the Indians’ conservatism against Lester that day: Francona might simply not have adjusted his scouting report on Lester since he left him.

He might remember Lester as a tough lefty to run on, even absent a good pickoff move, and not have wanted to risk the progress his offense was making against him by asking them to take extra bases. In three previous meetings with Francona-led Indians, while with the Red Sox, Lester had pitched nearly 22 innings, allowed seven earned runs, and placed 26 runners on base via hit, walk, or hit by pitch. The Indians had only tried two steals, both successful.

More remote, but not zero, are the chances that Francona knew full well about Lester’s problems throwing to bases, but elected not to press the issue out of kindness or compassion. Few people in the game are more loyal or openly human than Francona, and he and Lester were close. When I nudged that hypothesis forward at the time of the game, someone on Twitter called it an extraordinary proposition requiring extraordinary evidence. I agree, more now than ever, and can’t supply that kind of evidence, but the circumstantial evidence—with Santana’s steal immediately upon Lester’s departure as a flourish—is on the table.

It seems unthinkable that, even if it were the case, Francona’s affection for his former ace would weigh the same way on his decision making in the World Series as it did on that exhausting August day when his team was already out of the race. At any rate, there’s a chance Francona knew about Lester’s yips and chose not to exploit them, in 2015 and in years prior.

What Was Happening Then; What’s Happened Since

Of course, 2015 was a different time than 2016 for Lester. Opponents ran on him almost at will last season. Lester was still trying to figure out how to combat those who sought to take advantage of his very public problem. The huge leads some runners built seemed to unnerve him. He was not among the league’s slowest pitchers to the plate with runners on, but nor was he one of the fastest. He struggled to execute and command his stuff when he tried to slide step. With runners on third and less than two outs, he seemed unable to get the big strikeout and give himself a chance to strand the runner.

Throughout 2015, one thing began to work against that: David Ross, and his penchant for throwing behind runners on the bases. If a runner took a huge lead and took off against Lester, he was likely to be safe. If he took that lead and failed to run, though, he stood an increasing chance of being caught too far off the bag by Ross. That helped ensure both that fewer huge leads were taken, and that the majority of those who took those leads were moving back toward the base by the time Lester delivered the ball. It wasn’t that those runners feared Lester throwing over; it was that they knew, if they stayed 15 feet off the base and didn’t take off for second (or third, or whatever), Ross would throw them out easily.

Another change: the defense that eventually fell into place behind Lester (especially to open 2016). The Cubs’ infield defense is now one of the best ever assembled, and it helps in every possible way. Javier Baez drops the quickest tags in MLB, and is often specially deployed when the Cubs suspect a bunt might be coming, so that he can help avoid the risk of Lester having to field and throw hard to first. Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell have some of the surest hands in the league, so that if Lester ever needs to make a throw and bounces it--that’s the promise he’s made to them, especially Rizzo: to miss low--it won’t necessarily turn into an error. Indeed, Lester didn’t commit an error this season, despite a few ugly throws.

Lester has also gotten much, much quicker to home plate. He’s now firmly in the upper quartile of the league in terms of getting from glove to glove quickly, which gives Ross and Baez (or Russell, who’s a good receiver of throws on steal attempts, too) a real chance if a runner has anything other than a walking lead. He’s also subtly improved the variation in how long he holds the ball in the set position.

The Big Secret

Here’s the thing: we’ve all spent the two years since the 2014 Wild Card game wondering why teams don’t do more against Lester. Why don’t they take 20-foot leads and run on the first pitch? Why doesn’t everyone bunt the ball right back to him? There has to be a way for more teams to do something more like what the Royals did to Lester at the tail end of September that year.

Unless there isn’t. And I suspect that’s the case. In fact, the more you consider that 2015 game against Cleveland, and everything that has happened since the less it seems like throwing to the bases (or not) matters any measurable amount. Among the happenings: The Cubs catching roughly a third of would-be basestealers with Lester on the mound this year, including two cases in which he stepped off when a runner took a suicidal lead, and simply threw well enough to trap him in a rundown; Lester getting better at quickly gloving comebackers and hauling them halfway to first, before flipping the ball to Rizzo underhand; hardly anyone reaching base against the excellent pitcher and even better defensive club).

To whatever extent it does matter, it’s clear that the little things the Cubs do exceptionally well (tags, bunt coverage, Ross’ pop times) are more than enough to wash away this little thing one particular member does poorly. Lester still can’t throw to the bases. This season, it hasn’t hurt the Cubs one bit. It might even have helped them. There have still been teams who reached base and stole a bunch of bases against him. The Indians might do so, too. If they do, however, you’re better off chalking it up to their prowess and aggressiveness than to Lester’s shortcoming. If they don’t, maybe you can chalk it up to their manager understanding how tough his former player is, and how many ways trying to press him might backfire.

Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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