Colin Young was a left-handed pitcher who spent six seasons in the minors with the Rockies and the Red Sox, reaching Double-A with both organizations. He also, as of this season, covers the Texas League for Baseball Prospectus. Here's what he sees when he watches Jon Lester struggle with his pickoff throws.
Scrutiny is alive and well. In the days of death by analysis, we get obsessed with the subtle character flaws and moments of weakness in our superstars. We grasp at anything within our reach to knock them down a peg. So it is that we get the recent intrigue over Jon Lester’s bungled pick-off throw. Cries of the “Yips” or “Mental Block” follow, and suddenly we imagine that Lester has the mental strength of a tired 6-year-old at the end of a 10-hour excursion through Disneyland. But Lester, historically, has been as mentally tough as it comes. The dude has straight ice water in his veins. If you’re looking for someone to pitch Game 7 of the World Series, to make a 3-2 pitch with bases loaded and the game on the line, and yes, even attempt a crucial pick-off throw, I’ll take Jon Lester 10 out of 10 times.
But, numbers don’t lie, and the numbers here—the year-plus without an attempt, the 50 percent error rate on two tries this year—are astounding to say the least. Visually, we can see discomfort when he throws over to first, and quantifiably, the attempts are basically nil. These two components reasonably lead me to believe that there is something going on mentally with him.
We’ve seen plenty of guys unable to field their position as a pitcher, making errant throws to a base, overthrowing/underthrowing pickoffs, or tossing lollipops to the catcher on pitch outs or wild pitches on intentional balls. Lester’s has been magnified into a “What’s wrong with him” conversation, but his quote in the Chicago Tribune following his throwing error last week sheds some light on the situation: “When you’re not used to doing stuff like that, I got a little overexcited and threw the ball too soon.” Pickoffs are worked on during spring training and maybe a couple times a month in season, and pitchers may only get a few reps a few times a week practicing this move. I have yet to see a pitcher dedicate any great amount of time to perfecting his pickoff move following morning workouts or an intense bullpen session. In baseball talk, quality reps are what make you better; however, pickoff moves are not high on the to-do list. So one explanation is that Lester has simply fallen out of practice, it affected his ability to perform a deceptively complex move, and the lack of rehearsals snowballed. Another is that he’s just saying the right things to cover up a more severe underlying issue.
THE MENTAL GAME
For a left-hander, the pickoff move—and other means of holding the runner on—can be almost part of your repertoire. Lester, like many pitchers, appears to prefer to focus on the hitter and make a quality pitch with runners on base. There’s a case to be made for this.
Pitchers talk about focus, conviction, and execution when it comes to pitch selection and attacking a hitter. It requires a laser-like mindset dedicated to executing the pitch; Kevin Costner’s character in For the Love of the Game captures it when he tells himself to “clear the mechanism.” When runners are on base, a pitcher’s focus becomes divided and his attention is split between the runner and the hitter, detracting from his focus on attacking the hitter. Now we have two variables at play: slowing the running game and getting the hitter out.
Think of this situation as someone talking in your ear while you are trying to read a book. You know the person is there and you can hear him, but you might not pick up on everything he says because you’re trying to process the words you are reading—and vice versa. For a pitcher with runners on it’s the same scenario: He knows the runner is there, he wants to keep him close to the bag, eliminate the possibility of a good jump, maybe keep him honest by throwing over a few times. But there is still the hitter to take care of, which is usually where the pitcher wants his main focus to be. A distracted pitch is rarely a well-executed pitch, and those types of mistakes typically end up in the bleachers.
So far this year, the running game has been on Lester’s mind a lot in his three starts, possibly detracting from his pitch execution (24 hits in 15 2/3 innings). Or maybe it’s not the running game; maybe he’s carrying undue pressure because he has just joined a new team as a $155 million ace, or maybe he’s just still finding his early-season rhythm. Whatever the case may be, it seems Lester is out of sorts with his confidence. The throw-over issues exacerbate his situation.
THE RUNNING GAME
Lester has established the fact that he’s not throwing to first base (and doesn’t seem to want to), so how is he controlling the running game and why aren’t baserunners taking more advantage of him? Lester uses a couple tools other than throws over, and he does them very well.
First, being a lefty and facing the runner gives the Lester the advantage of seeing and controlling the runner in front of him. My old pitching coach, Bob McClure of the Philadelphia Phillies, explained how pitchers can take advantage of the runner just by staring at them.* Staring makes the runner uncomfortable and stops his movement, almost as if he is weighted down by your attention. The longer you stare and look at a runner, the more uncomfortable and anxious he becomes. Lester will vary his looks over to first, stare at the runner, and hold the ball in the set position for varying amounts of time. These varying looks and delivery times don’t allow the runner to “time” the pitcher. A lot of pitchers fall into delivery-time patterns that baserunners can easily read to get a jump. For example, younger pitchers will come set, hold the ball for a two count, then deliver the pitch. If this pattern is consistently repeated then runners can adjust and get an early jump. Lester has a keen sense of not falling into these patterns.
*I might be playing conspiracy theorist here, but McClure was the Red Sox’ pitching coach in 2012, when Lester went from 70 pickoff attempts in 2011 to just 5 in 2012.
Lester also implements the slide step where he barely lifts his leg and drives to the plate. His slide step is quite quick and he does a great job of loading his backside as to not detract from the authority and execution of the pitch. In Grantland this month, Ben Lindbergh wrote that Lester’s delivery times with a man on first have averaged “1.46 seconds, slightly better than the 1.50 average for lefties.” So we have varying looks, relatively quick delivery times, holding the ball, and stepping off the rubber, all helping Lester get around the need to throw over. The question now is how long will this last? How long until teams start taking advantage of this and forcing him to make quality throws to first, now that the cat is out of the bag.
I could argue that forcing himself to throw over a couple times a game could have some positive results over time. With each successful throw over, confidence is gained until a sense of normalcy is achieved. We know he doesn’t like throwing over to first, but we also know there was a time he was comfortable with the throw. But, finally, we know that—as of now—baserunners haven’t forced him to do anything differently that he has been. However unfathomable it may seem, he isn’t really getting worse in allowing stolen bases and attempts.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY
Lester’s control of the running game is actually above average for the league. We looked at the past three seasons for Lester, using our BSAA metric, which measures the likelihood of a base being stolen against a pitcher, adjusted for pitcher quality, catcher, stadium, and lead runner. In that time—before this year—Lester actually decreased the likelihood of stolen bases against him, compared to the average of the league: In 2012 he was a bit more that two percentage points worse than league average, while in 2013 and 2014 he was squarely on the league average (or slightly better). Similarly, we can look at SBAA, which measures the likelihood of an attempted stolen base, again adjusted for all those factors. Attempts have gone up against him, relatively to the league, but by this measure Lester remains better than the league average.
By interpreting each, we see that Lester’s minimal pickoff attempts have scarcely affected his ability to slow the running game, if it has affected it at all. The numbers say that Lester has been getting by.
I don’t believe that not throwing over to first is sustainable, though. Teams will start taking advantage of Lester and force him to play catch with the first baseman. The throw over needs to at least be in the back of a baserunner’s mind. The beginning of the season is always a tough adjustment for players, but if Lester doesn’t adjust as the season goes on he’ll most likely find that opposing baserunners do.