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How to beat Jon Lester on the basepaths

It’s simple: take a really, really big lead.

MLB: World Series-Cleveland Indians at Chicago Cubs Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a good World Series. If the Cubs had lost last night, Cleveland would’ve walked away champions in five games, the worst series length possible (none of the dominance of a sweep, less drama than a six- or seven-game series). Instead, we get a more competitive series, another ballpark switch, and more baseball.

The series has also featured a number of compelling storylines, including a familiar one last seen most prominently in 2014. Jon Lester has appeared in each of the three postseasons, and after the Royals went nuts on the basepaths against him in the 2014 Wild Card game, a pressing question each time has been how he would handle opposing runners despite being totally unable to throw to first. This postseason, the story has been more about the inability of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland to capitalize on his yips rather than the yips themselves.

In Lester’s four starts this postseason, runners have attempted seven steals (though they’ve danced around a bit more than that, for whatever that’s worth...very little, I suspect). Those seven attempts have lead to only four successes, with three runners making it to second and one to third. In the regular season, the break-even percentage of a steal of second – the success rate where the risk of an extra out is, on average, equal to the bonus of an extra base – is roughly 66 percent. It stands to reason that the percentage would be a bit lower in the playoffs, when home runs are suppressed and runs in general are harder to come by, but even if you adjust that figure downward, the success rate of Lester’s basestealing opponents (4/7 = 57 percent) looks like barely enough to break-even; this is off a pitcher who doesn’t throw to first! Ever! Opposing baserunners have nonetheless been totally unable to take advantage, and maybe even hurt their teams in the attempt.

How is this possible? Pundits and writers have suggested a number of possibilities – the ingrained habits of baserunners, Lester’s varied set and windup timing, a healthy fear of David Ross – all of which are probably true to some degree. It can be hard to appreciate those factors in real time, however, so let’s go through each of these attempts, and see if there’s anything that jumps out.

Attempt 1: CHC–SFG, October 7, Gorkys Hernandez

Right off the bat, we see a ‘caught stealing’ that really owes as much to Lester as it does to his battery-mate. Sure, it’s a good throw from Ross, but it beats Hernandez by a country mile. His lead isn’t enormous, and I think you can see that he doesn’t get a great jump. If you look at the previous pitch, the reason for Hernandez’s bad timing is clear:

Before the first pitch of the at bat, the time between when we first see Lester at the set and when he moves toward home is about 2.5 seconds. He might’ve been set before the camera moves to him, but it’s a lower bound for his time staring down Hernandez. Before pitch two, Lester is much, much faster, moving after about .7 seconds, and Hernandez was clearly expecting another second or two to prepare. Once he was caught by surprise, the attempt was as good as over.

Attempt 2: CHC–LAD, October 20, Justin Turner

With Ross unable to get a throw off, it’s unclear where the responsibility for this stolen base lies. The previous pitches again provide a hint, however:

Turner has a huge lead, much bigger than Hernandez did in the previous attempt and much bigger than he would probably take off any other pitcher. Lester doesn’t seem to vary his timing as much in this plate appearance, but given that Ross didn’t make a throw, it’s hard to dig too deeply into the intricacies of this attempt.

Attempt 3: CHC–LAD, October 20, Howie Kendrick

It’s strange and amusing how many similarities there are between Lester holding runners and any other pitcher. Lester can’t throw, but like everyone else, he’s able to hold runners closer to first than he is to second, and we see that Kendrick has a hefty lead, bigger than either Hernandez or Turner. Lester varied his set time less in this PA as well, which I interpret as a reduced amount of attention paid to the baserunner.

Given how rarely any pitcher throws over to second, it seems stealing third off Lester is very similar to stealing third off any pitcher. The call on the field was eventually overturned (by a pretty close replay), but stealing third seems to remain difficult and risky with Lester pitching, thanks primarily to the skill of David Ross and Kris Bryant.

Attempt 4: CHC-CLE, October 25, Francisco Lindor

This is the first of three Lindor attempts we’ll see, and it’s all downhill for him after this one. He gets a good jump, though with one of the smaller leads we’ve seen, and Ross of course doesn’t make the throw. I don’t want to spend too much time on this one, since I think there’s not much different between this attempt and one with a pitcher other than Lester on the mound; some amount of the time, the catcher is going to muff the throw, no matter how good the runner’s jump is.

Attempt 5: CHC-CLE, October 25, Francisco Lindor

I think there are a few reasons Lindor gets nabbed here. Most obviously, this is a solid throw by Ross, and a vintage Javy Baez tag, and without both of them Lindor is probably sitting on second. It seems like Lester’s responsible for a few things, too. While waiting for the first pitch of the plate appearance, Lindor broke for second before Lester went towards home, and when Lester stepped off and looked toward Lindor, he scurried back to first. It was a bizarre interaction; against most pitchers, Lindor was dead to rights, but against Lester, it’s not clear that he needed to stop at all. If he kept sprinting toward second, Lester would’ve had to race him to the bag, and that’s a race I think Lindor wins easily.

The upshot, though, was that Lindor looked a little less comfortable waiting for this pitch. Note that Lester comes set, looks away from first, then does a double take back before his pitch, and while it’s small, it’s also the kind of thing that would have a greater effect after a baserunner was caught jumping early. Again, there’s a logical inconsistency at the heart of Lester’s technique – running early only matters if he can actually punish you for it, and he can’t – but it seems to work.

But the biggest reason I think Lindor was caught? His lead is just too small. It’s a big lead by normal standards, but Lester can’t punish runners for taking head starts much bigger than this. Of course, David Ross can, so runners can’t stay off the base if the ball isn’t put into play. An easy way to neutralize Ross’s backpicking skills, however, is to run for second! It’s the simplest part of the pattern that seems to emerge from all these attempts: attempted basestealers with normal leads are vulnerable.

Attempt 6: CHC–CLE, October 30, Rajai Davis

Like Lindor above, Davis had started and stopped on the previous pitch, but unlike Lindor, he actually takes advantage of Lester’s yips and gets himself a huge lead. Davis very deliberately steps about six feet further away from first than he would on a normal lead. Ross muffs the throw again, but given Davis’s basestealing prowess and his colossal lead, it seems unlikely that even a perfect throw would’ve done the Cubs any good.

Attempt 7: CHC–CLE, October 30, Francisco Lindor

This was, in many ways, the crucial point of the game last night. Davis had just scored from second (thanks to his stolen base) on Lindor’s single, and with Cleveland’s stellar bullpen looming, a single run would’ve changed the complexion of this game dramatically. It’s also the final attempt thus far, and provides a nice summation of many of the things we’ve previously observed.

The broadcast didn’t show Lindor before the first pitch, but Lester used the same stutter – stare at first, glance at his glove, back to first – that he did for Lindor’s second attempt. Before the second pitch, we see that Lindor’s lead has grown substantially since the first inning:

if still not to the level of Davis’s. On the pitch he actually goes on, we see Lester use some of his variation tactics: he moves quickly from staring at first to moving toward home, without a double-take, and he stays set for a relatively short period of time (about 1.4 seconds). It’s not clear how much that accomplishes, however, since Lindor appears to get a good jump, and much of the credit for the out has to go to Ross’s good throw and Baez’s beautiful tag.

* * *

There are a few interesting takeaways from these seven attempts:

The first, and most obvious: opposing teams haven’t figured out how to fully exploit Lester’s yips. Of the four successful steals, Ross was unable to get a throw off in three of them, and while that might be the result of rushing to catch a runner with a good jump, it seems like those steals would’ve succeeded against any pitcher.

The second thing you notice when looking at all seven of them in a row: baserunners are still treating Jon Lester like a normal pitcher, who happens to have a bad pickoff move, rather than a pitcher totally incapable of throwing to a base. He can vary his timing and try to fake them out, but he has no ability to punish them when he succeeds.

Despite that, however, baserunners still stay relatively close to the base; they still panic when he turns toward first; they still try desperately not to go before his first move to home and get some bad jumps as a result. I get that this is probably harder than it looks to me from the vantage of my couch. These players have spent countless hours honing their instincts for pitchers who can throw to first, with the Pavlovian shame of being picked off providing a hugely effective training mechanism. To just switch all that off for a pitcher who sure looks like other pitchers and displays no logical reason for being unable to throw to a base, while still staying safe from David Ross on the back-end, is assuredly not easy. This inability to adjust to Lester is certainly striking, however.

The final thing to notice is that, on the semi-rare occasion that a runner does treat Lester differently, they can torch him. Davis’s successful steal came with a massive lead off first, and while Ross didn’t get the throw off at all, it sure looked like it wouldn’t have mattered. Similarly, while Justin Turner isn’t nearly as fast as Davis (and his attempt also didn’t feature a throw), his lead off first was just as freakishly large. And the one successful steal that did feature a throw by Ross, by Kendrick, was also the result of an expansive lead. All the unsuccessful attempts, on the other hand, started with a lead that was still mostly within the bounds of normal behavior.

Again, it’s not clear if this is the kind of thing that an opposing team could take advantage of with a sternly worded team meeting and detailed instructions to baserunners about the enormous leads they should take while Lester is on the mound. It might be that a functional pick off move is simply not crucial to a pitcher’s ability to function. In any case, as someone watching these games and nearly pulling out my hair when runners are caught stealing against the Cubs lefty, it’s somewhat calming to at least see the mechanics of how it’s happened, and know what to look for in a potential Game 7.

. . .

Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.