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One of the most unexpected events of the month—heck, of the season—occurred on Saturday, June 3, in the fifth inning of the Cardinals-Cubs game:

That’s Jon Lester, The Pitcher Who Won’t Throw to First, throwing to first, picking off Tommy Pham to end the inning. It was his first pickoff (not counting pickoff caught stealings) since his rookie year in 2006. He stopped throwing to first base altogether during the 2011 season.

Check out Pham’s lead. It was huge, nearly 20 feet, so huge that even with the lollipop toss Lester made to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the play wasn’t close. Rizzo wasn’t even on the bag.

The Jon Lester-not-throwing-to-first coming out party was the American League Wild Card game between the Royals and A’s in 2014. Up to that point, he was clearly not great at suppressing basestealers, as he allowed an above-average success rate on stolen base attempts in all but one of the six seasons leading into the postseason. But after that game, during which the Royals stole five bases against him[1], Lester’s yips became a thing. He went more than two years—66 starts—without throwing over to first at all, and the pickoff attempt that ended the streak didn’t go well:

When you don’t throw over to first, runners take big leads. When they take big leads, they have a better chance of stealing bases. Below are statistics for Lester’s stolen bases allowed during the nine seasons in which he qualified for the ERA title.

This table lists Lester’s stolen bases allowed, his rank within his league, his caught stealings, the success rate of runners attempting to steal against him, and the league-wide stolen base success rate. The last column is Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA), our statistic that isolates a pitcher’s ability to prevent stolen bases independently from the abilities of his catcher and the runners on base; a negative number indicates the pitcher is better than average, a positive number is worse than average:

Year

SB

Rank

CS

SB%

Lg SB%

SRAA

2008

8

42T

5

62%

73%

-3.7%

2009

19

19t

6

76%

74%

-0.9%

2010

22

10

7

76%

74%

-0.9%

2011

14

26T

12

54%

72%

-7.4%

2012

13

31T

3

81%

75%

+2.6%

2013

12

25T

4

75%

74%

+0.4%

2014

16

9T

5

76%

73%

-0.2%

2015

44

1

11

80%

72%

+3.0%

2016

28

3

13

68%

73%

-2.1%

Per SRAA, Lester’s been notably bad only twice in his career, in 2012 and 2015. Lester allowed 72 stolen bases in his first two years with Cubs in 2015 and 2016, 18 more than the Milwaukee’s Jimmy Nelson, who ranked second with 54.

But look at his stolen base success rate in the table above. It fell by 12 percentage points from 2015 to 2016. So while he allowed a lot of stolen bases last year, a lot of runners were caught stealing against him as well. Basestealers were 23-for-32 on attempted steals of second base and just 5-for-9 on attempted steals of third base with Lester on the mound in 2016.

Clearly, baserunners attempting to steal third against Lester last year hurt their teams, as they were successful only 56 percent of the time. And using our run expectancy matrix, the break-even rate for stolen base attempts with a runner on first in 2016 was 73 percent with no outs, 75 percent with one out, and 69 percent with two outs. The 72 percent success rate Lester allowed on attempted steals of second and his -2.1 percent SRAA overall mean players attempting stolen bases against Lester last year hurt their teams.

I discussed Lester with my BP colleague Matthew Trueblood, and he pointed out that the issue with Lester isn’t just stolen bases. When baserunners take big leads, they’re in an advantageous position to avoid double plays and advance on base hits. How bad has Lester been on those scores?

Here’s Lester’s double-play percentage (i.e., batters grounding into double plays divided by plate appearances with a runner on first and fewer than two outs) compared to the league average, once again for his seasons as a regular:

Year

DP%

Lg DP%

Diff

2008

15.8%

11.4%

4.4%

2009

8.9%

10.7%

-1.8%

2010

12.9%

11.2%

1.7%

2011

11.3%

10.5%

0.7%

2012

15.2%

11.7%

3.5%

2013

12.3%

10.9%

1.3%

2014

14.1%

10.5%

3.6%

2015

11.3%

11.6%

-0.3%

2016

14.3%

10.7%

3.6%

Total

12.5%

11.0%

1.5%

Now, in fairness, Lester generates more grounders than the average pitcher. From 2008 to 2016, the league-average ground-ball rate was 45.6 percent, while Lester’s was 49.1 percent. So we’d expect him to have a better-than-average double-play percentage. But not a lot more. Certainly, not enough more to explain a double-play percentage that’s 1.5 percentage points higher than the league average over his career. Lester has induced an above-average number of double plays.

OK, but what about keeping runners from advancing? When a runner on first takes a big lead, he’s more likely to go to third on a single or score on a double. When he takes a big lead at second, it’s easier to score on a single. Has Lester been burned?

Let’s start with runners on first when a single’s hit. Rob McQuown, who retrieved all the data in the rest of this article for me, pointed out that Lester’s played most of his career in idiosyncratic ballparks that, because of their dimensions, may make it harder for runners to take extra bases on base hits. So he provided both home and away data for me.

This table shows the percentage of runners on first who went to third (or scored) on singles against Lester compared to league averages. In this and the following tables, H = home, R = road, and T = Total. A negative difference means Lester’s been better than average at preventing runners from advancing; a positive difference means he’s been worse than average.

Year

1-to-3 H

1-to-3 R

1-to-3 T

Lg 1-to-3

Diff H

Diff R

Diff T

2008

27.8%

24.1%

25.5%

26.7%

+1.1%

-2.6%

-1.2%

2009

13.0%

33.3%

21.1%

26.5%

-13.5%

+6.8%

-5.5%

2010

22.2%

33.3%

28.2%

27.4%

-5.2%

+5.9%

+0.8%

2011

21.1%

20.0%

20.5%

28.7%

-7.6%

-8.7%

-8.2%

2012

22.7%

29.4%

25.6%

28.7%

-6.0%

+0.7%

-3.1%

2013

21.1%

17.1%

18.5%

27.5%

-6.4%

-10.4%

-9.0%

2014

15.8%

27.3%

20.0%

28.3%

-12.5%

-1.0%

-8.3%

2015

25.0%

33.3%

28.0%

27.2%

-2.2%

+6.2%

+0.8%

2016

46.2%

20.0%

32.1%

28.2%

+18.0%

-8.2%

+3.9%

Total

22.8%

24.9%

23.8%

27.7%

-4.9%

-2.8%

-3.8%

Lester has been above-average over his career at preventing runners from going first-to-third on singles, both at home and on the road. I wouldn’t call this an unadulterated win, since he’s been a little below average in his Cubs seasons (though he’s started this year well).

Sticking with runners on first again, here’s how they did when they tried to score on a double:

Year

1-to-H H

1-to-H R

1-to-H T

Lg 1-to-H

Diff H

Diff R

Diff

2008

16.7%

0.0

12.5%

38.8%

-22.1%

-38.8%

-26.3%

2009

0.0%

33.3

22.2%

38.6%

-38.6%

-5.3%

-16.4%

2010

33.3%

33.3

33.3%

39.0%

-5.7%

-5.7%

-5.7%

2011

25.0%

60.0

44.4%

40.3%

-15.3%

+19.7%

4.2%

2012

22.2%

60.0

35.7%

38.9%

-16.7%

+21.1%

-3.2%

2013

80.0%

40.0

60.0%

38.2%

+41.8%

+1.8%

21.8%

2014

25.0%

28.6

27.3%

38.9%

-13.9%

-10.3%

-11.6%

2015

60.0%

0.0

33.3%

40.7%

+19.3%

-40.7%

-7.3%

2016

33.3%

33.3

33.3%

38.7%

-5.4%

-5.4%

-5.4%

Total

33.3%

34.9

36.3%

39.0%

-5.8%

-4.2%

-5.0%

I wouldn’t read much into the yearly numbers, as they’re based on limited observations. Lester allows very few doubles with a runner on first, ranging from six in 2016 to 14 in 2012. However, as with runners on first when a single’s hit, Lester has been above average at preventing runners from taking an extra base on doubles with a runner on first, both at home and on the road.

Finally, here’s how runners on second fared when they tried to score on a single:

Year

2-to-H H

2-to-H R

2-to-H T

Lg 2-to-H

Diff H

Diff R

Diff T

2008

50.0%

58.8%

56.5%

53.7%

-3.7%

+5.1%

2.8%

2009

33.3%

72.7%

52.2%

53.1%

-19.7%

+19.6%

-0.9%

2010

40.0%

63.6%

52.4%

53.5%

-13.5%

+10.1%

-1.1%

2011

60.0%

50.0%

56.3%

54.2%

+5.8%

-4.2%

2.1%

2012

45.5%

71.4%

55.6%

54.5%

-9.1%

+16.9%

1.0%

2013

37.5%

57.1%

50.0%

55.1%

-17.6%

+2.0%

-5.1%

2014

69.2%

42.9%

60.0%

54.1%

+15.1%

-11.3%

5.9%

2015

57.1%

37.5%

50.0%

52.9%

+4.2%

-15.4%

-2.9%

2016

33.3%

37.5%

36.4%

54.7%

-21.4%

-17.2%

-18.3%

Total

49.4%

56.2%

52.8%

54.0%

-4.5%

+2.2%

-1.1%

As with the last table, his yearly performance has fluctuated, largely because of sample size: Lester’s allowed no more than 23 singles with a runner on second in any season in his career, and last year he allowed only 11. Still, he’s been better than average over his career at preventing runners on second from scoring on a single, though he’s been slightly worse than average away from home.

So here’s the tally on Jon Lester, the man who wouldn’t throw over to first:

  • He’s been easier than average to steal on over most of his career, but he’s in general been OK at limiting the damage from stolen bases and was very effective at reducing the value of stolen base attempts last year. He’s been even better so far this year (only six successful steals in 14 attempts).
  • He’s been better than average at generating double plays with a runner on first, both over his entire career and in seven of his nine seasons as a regular.
  • He’s been better than average at preventing runners on first from taking an extra base on singles, both over his entire career and in six of his nine seasons as a regular.
  • He’s been better than average at preventing runners on first from taking an extra base on doubles, both over his entire career and in seven of his nine seasons as a regular.
  • He’s been better than average at preventing runners on second from taking an extra base on singles, both over his entire career and in five of his nine seasons as a regular, though that total’s been helped by his games at home.

And remember, in many of those years, he pretty much wouldn’t throw to the bases.

Yes, I know, this isn’t all about Lester. The catchers who throw out attempted basestealers and whose back picks hold runners close, the outfielders who throw the ball in with runners on base, and the infielders who apply the tags all play a role in suppressing the running game. And Lester’s been able to mitigate runners’ leads by being faster to the plate, getting runners with huge leads caught in rundowns, and taking advantage of his defense, as Trueblood pointed out last year. But we’re talking about a guy who’s famous for not throwing the ball to first, for crying out loud. Imagine how good he can be now that he has that killer left-handed pickoff move!

Thanks to Rob McQuown for not only compiling most of the data here but also helping me define the research parameters.



[1] Nobody seems to remember this, but four of those stolen bases occurred after A’s catcher Geovany Soto, who could control the running game (43 percent caught stealing in 2014), had to leave the game after Eric Hosmer barreled into him on an idiotic (admittedly, that’s my opinion) delayed double steal (the glacial Billy Butler on first, Hosmer on third) in the first inning. Derek Norris, who couldn’t throw (17 percent caught stealing in 2014), replaced Soto. That probably opened the floodgates as much as Lester’s refusal to throw over to first.