Something extraordinary happened earlier this afternoon. Jon Lester and the Cubs were facing the Cardinals, and in the fifth, Tommy Pham was on first base with two outs. It might not seem like the set-up for a momentous event, but it was. Jon Lester threw the ball to first. Anthony Rizzo caught it cleanly and easily. Pham was tagged out.
In case you aren’t properly amazed, some background. Jon Lester has a thing. I remember reading about it on the even of the 2014 playoffs, when Lester was with the A’s, about to face the Royals in the Wild Card game. Jeff Sullivan wrote a quick piece, referencing a comment from Jon Roegele below an earlier article, that pointed out a curious fact: Jon Lester hadn’t thrown to first base a single time in the entire 2014 season. There had been whispers before then that the lefty was mysteriously uncomfortable with his move to first, but I hadn’t realized just how stark the manifestation of that discomfort was.
The question that afternoon was what kind of difference it would make. The Royals of 2014 were a throwback to the 80s, a speed-and-defense squad that featured players like Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and other threats on the basepaths. If anyone was going to take advantage of Lester’s curious reluctance to throw to first, it would be them.
That game is one of the best contests of recent years, and singlehandedly makes a great argument for the existence of the one-game Wild Card playoff. The Royals did indeed run like wild on Lester (three stolen bases) and the rest of the Oakland pitchers and catchers (four stolen bases), and the running game ended up playing a key role in Kansas City’s eventual 9–8 victory in the twelve-inning contest.
Speculation about Lester and the running game swirled that offseason, driven by the recency of the Royals’ exploitation of his reticence and Lester’s free agency. He eventually signed with the Cubs, and as Opening Day approached, one of the big questions was what exactly Lester could or couldn’t do.
We didn’t have to wait that long to find out, as Lester threw to first for the first time in over a year on April 13, 2015.
That play neatly demonstrates what has happened over the last few years. Lester has looked completely incapable of throwing to first. But, somehow, thanks to the combined efforts of his teammates and coaching staff, he hasn’t been consistently exposed or taken advantage of. Whether it’s Anthony Rizzo catching Lester’s glove when he throws it along with the ball, or the Cubs catchers engaging in frequent and unpredictable pickoff attempts of their own, Chicago has always found creative ways of working around Lester’s apparent yips.
As a result, Lester’s baserunning numbers have been, improbably, incredibly, amazingly reasonable. Baseball Prospectus tracks “swipe rate above average” (SRAA), which calculates the damage done to a pitcher by opposing baserunners. In 2016, Lester was 2.1 runs better than average. You can certainly disagree with the precise number, but the broad conclusion — that Lester was not victimized by the running game — was hard to argue with. His 28 stolen bases allowed was high, but not the highest in the league (Noah Syndergaard had 48 (!), Jimmy Nelson had 30), and his 13 caught stealings was the highest in the league.
This was a source of great frustration to many of us who comment on the game, myself included. It seemed so easy to steal on Lester, once the full extent of his incapability was revealed. You take a lead, and then you take a bigger lead, and then you keep going. He can’t throw over to first! If he starts chasing you, run toward second! He literally can’t throw the ball.
But runners never followed that strategy. It seemed like, despite all evidence to the contrary, they still believed that Lester might bust out a pickoff throw at some point. To return to Jeff Sullivan, here’s what he wrote at FanGraphs during last season’s playoffs:
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?
Pardon the huge blockquote, but Jeff sums it up perfectly. Baserunners just could not believe that Lester was really able to throw a 92mph sinker with incredible accuracy, and was really unable to lob a throw to first base.
We, the “smart” folks who watch and analyze and write about baseball, laughed at those silly, superstitious baseball players. How could they not get it? Lester had demonstrated, conclusively, that he would never be able to pick them off. Second base was waiting for anyone brave enough to take it. A throw to first was never going to happen.
Whoops! Looks like the players were right all along.
Is Lester fixed? Has he been faking it this whole time? What’s going to happen the next time someone takes a huge lead? Probably not, probably not, and who knows, respectively. What we do know, however, is that the yips are really hard to explain, and we (*cough* I *cough*) probably shouldn’t be so confident that we know how to take advantage of them. Because when we do, we’re just asking for Jon Lester to make us look very, very silly.