On Sunday night, under the lights at obnoxiously-under-construction Wrigley Field, Jon Lester took the bump for his first start as a member of the Chicago Cubs. He wasn't terrible, but he wasn't particularly brilliant either, taking a bit of time to settle down and get his cutter working, ultimately finding his way out of the game during the fifth inning due to a high pitch count.
And yet, that's not the story here after one start for the pitcher that the Cubs signed to a six-year, $155 million deal in the offseason. Not with a group of Chicago media that will succumb to any narrative. No, the focus through this first week of the season, especially with the Cubs only taking the field for a pair of games between that season opener and Thursday, has been the lack of pickoff attempts for Jon Lester.
He has the "yips", they say. Curt Schilling was sure to point it out in his disastrous broadcast on Sunday night. And the Chicago media has fed off of it already this week, pointing to the fact that Lester did not attempt a single pickoff last season, his best in the big leagues, as a cause for concern so early in his tenure on the North Side.
The following represents Lester's pickoff attempts since 2009 (via FanGraphs):
So what exactly happened between 2011 and 2012 that resulted in him dropping his amount of attempted pickoffs by 65 attempts overall? There's an answer for that: we don't know (Grantland thinks they do). Maybe there is some truth behind the claim of yips. Opposing baserunners went for 16 swipes in 21 attempts against Lester last season. That's not any sort of dastardly figure, but with this narrative having become increasingly loud since last year's postseason, when Lester was with the Oakland Athletics, one would imagine that teams would begin focusing on trying to move runners around much more actively when he's out on the hill.
We did see the St. Louis Cardinals move around quite a bit on Sunday night. David Ross was successful in throwing out one, but the Cardinals stole three of four overall, and were taking big enough leads that they had the ability to move from first to third on a number of occasions, even on small misplays from outfielders.
The 16 steals off Lester were 17th in the league among starting pitchers last season, with at least three other frontline starters that finished with twice as many as that figure against them. In the case of Lester, it isn't necessarily the raw number of stolen bases that has attracted so much attention, but his potential reluctance to do anything about it. But even if Lester never attempts another pickoff, how much would it matter?
Last year, Justin Verlander attempted 199 pickoffs. Baserunners went 13-for-17 against him, good for a 76.4% success rate. By comparison, Lester's 16/21 against him came in at 76.1%. That makes a pretty strong case in itself against this issue with Lester and his "yips" not actually serving as that large of an issue.
As a lefty, Lester is already at something of an advantage against runners at first base, even if he's not throwing over. Runners are naturally less tempted to take a larger primary lead against a southpaw. That, in addition to the fact that he does get the ball to the plate relatively quickly, ensures that even if Lester continues this trend, it doesn't necessarily mean that he's going to face an overwhelming amount of success against him in stealing bases.
It can be stated, with absolutely confidence, that up to this point, Lester's unwillingness to throw over to first base has been absolutely blown out of proportion. Sure, the Kansas City Royals had a field day on him in Oakland's brief postseason appearance, but did anybody watch Kansas City last year? They victimized a lot of teams on the basepaths.
But with Lester's transition to the National League, isn't he at more of a risk to succumb to baserunners due to his reluctance to make a move to first? Not necessarily. The National League stole two more bases than the American League last year overall (93-91), while the AL actually out-attempted the NL in overall attempts, although just by one, at 127-126.
That doesn't necessarily mean that it couldn't become an issue. This could lead to an increased desire for opposing teams to try and run on Lester. Until that happens, though, this could certainly be declared something that has been spectacularly overblown. The narrative that was birthed during last year's postseason has been adopted by the narrative-embracing Chicago media.
But as of right now, as far as Jon Lester's reluctance to make a move to first, it's not an issue until it becomes an issue.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.