CLEVELAND — By now, the scouting report on Jon Lester hardly is the stuff of WikiLeaks. Everybody knows that he is supremely gifted when throwing baseballs at home plate, and almost helpless when throwing them anywhere else.
Because of the yips, the Cubs’ brilliant lefty has been turned into the guy who leaves the doors to his house unlocked, the car keys in the ignition, so vulnerable to theft that everyone has the potential to become Rickey Henderson.
Yet, Lester has gotten away with his glaring deficiency, partly because opponents have been seized by a fear to exploit it. It’s a curious case that has the potential to shape Tuesday’s opening game of the World Series against the Indians, a team equipped to get over the sheer disbelief that a major league pitcher can’t trust himself to throw to first base.
“For non-base stealers, it’s hard to believe that they’re actually off [the base] as far as they are and he’s not really going to pick over,” Indians outfielder Coco Crisp said. “It’s kind of like, ‘wait, is he? Uh, nah, I’m sure this is all a hoax just for this moment.’ That’s kind of what goes through the back of your mind.”
It is not a hoax, and the evidence has been overwhelming. Indians manager Terry Francona said Lester’s throwing issues date back to their time with the Red Sox.
“The last bit while I was there, we knew it was surfacing and we did a lot of things to make sure that it didn’t get out in the open,” Francona said. “And I thought we actually did a really good job because it wasn’t until I left there that people started to realize that.”
That realization came during the the 2014 American League wild card game. Pitching for the A’s at the time, Lester was powerless to stop the Royals from running wild, making it clear to all that 90-foot freebies would be available to all.
“In my opinion,” said Indians outfielder Rajai Davis, “if you can get there and if he’s going to let you get there, why don’t you take it?”
‘I wanted Jon to focus’
It’s an obvious question that has yet to yield an obvious answer, because for all of Lester’s hang-ups about throwing, basestealers have been surprisingly unsuccessful. And it hasn’t been for a lack of effort.
According to Baseball Prospectus, opponents attempted to steal against Lester at the fourth-highest rate in the major leagues. That put Lester in the same company as two tall pitchers with infamously glacial times to the plate -- the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and the Yankees’ Dellin Betances.
Not surprisingly, both Syndergaard and Betances were the two worst pitchers in baseball at preventing steals. But those same statistics showed that Lester was nowhere near as bad. In fact, he ranked better than the average big league pitcher.
Some of the credit goes to Lester himself. Despite his troubles throwing to first base, he has been mindful of other ways to keep runners honest. Scouts note that he is quick to the plate and often steps off the rubber to prevent some long leads.
The Cubs also have done well to protect their best pitcher from being exploited. Manager Joe Maddon has insisted that Lester let his teammates deal with pesky baserunners.
“What Jon does as good as anybody in Major League Baseball is throw the ball from the mound to the plate, and that’s it,” Maddon said. “I wanted Jon to focus on what he does well, first.”
That focus has come easier thanks to a Cubs defense that by some measures has been one of the best of all-time. In the postseason, third basemen Kris Bryant and first basemen Anthony Rizzo have aggressively charged after bunts in an effort to spare Lester from having to throw.
“Defense wins championships,” Lester said.
Behind the plate, veteran David Ross led the league with six pickoffs despite limited playing time as Lester’s personal catcher. Ross has been particularly adept at back picks, or throwing behind runners at first base, another tool to keep them from cheating too much.
Said Crisp: “That’s definitely a huge help for him when you’ve got a guy with an accurate arm, quick off the trigger behind the plate and can back pick like that.”
‘An awkward situation’
Lester has benefitted from another ally, one that does not wear a Cubs uniform: doubt. His throwing problems are so unusual that baserunners find themselves unable to trust their own senses.
“It’s like ‘OK, nobody else is doing this, nobody else has this fear of throwing to first base like Lester has. So, what do you do in this situation?’” Davis said. “You’re caught in an awkward situation.”
That awkwardness appeared to overwhelm the Dodgers. They had vowed to be active on the basepaths before both of Lester’s starts in the National League Championship Series. They hoped to throw him off his rhythm.
The Dodgers swiped two bases in Game 6. Joc Pederson even forced Lester to make an uncomfortable throw when he bunted back to the mound. It was an ugly, unsteady one-hopper to Rizzo. But Lester made the throw then glared into the Dodgers dugout as if to say he would not be rattled.
But most of the night was spent by the Dodgers taking big leads only to stay put. Kiké Hernandez even made a point of dancing off first base, his feet moving like the infield dirt was made of hot coals. He did not steal. The theatrics were little more than a bluff, with the Dodgers seemingly unwilling to take the risk.
“That’s a common fear that base stealers have, getting caught,” Davis said. “It looks bad.”
It looks especially bad in an era where every out is treated like a precious commodity. Baseball has long veered away from the stolen base, with more teams wary of the risk being worth the reward.
“The game, that’s where it’s going,” Davis said. “Some managers don’t like to run. And if you’re going on your own, it’s a double whammy, because now you get caught when your manager didn’t want you to go.”
The Indians have shown that they are not bound by such trepidation. For Lester, this could be problematic.
‘I can’t see us changing now’
The Indians won the American League pennant partly by turning themselves into one of baseball’s most aggressive baserunning teams. They led the league with 134 steals, though they also were adept at advancing from first to third. Davis accounted for 43 steals on his own, the most in the AL. Jose Ramirez swiped 22 bases while Francisco Lindor added 19. And though he’s no speedster, few in baseball are better than Mike Napoli when advancing on balls in the dirt.
First base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. has taken an active role in prepping baserunners to prey upon weaknesses. Fearlessness on the bases is not merely a part of the Indians’ game. It is part of their culture.
“We have some really, really knowledgable guys that are on our side that are helping us out, finding keys on every pitcher regardless of who they are,” Davis said. “And that has really helped us tremendously.”
It’s clear that the Indians have been paying attention. With Lester on the mound in Game 1 of the division series against the Giants, Ross went to one of his favorite weapons, a back pick, to wipe out Conor Gillaspie at first base. It did not go unnoticed.
“One thing is when you’re off that far, there’s no need to a take secondary [lead],” Crisp said. “A lot of people off that far will still take a secondary. Then they are susceptible to back picking, and they’re thinking about that.”
Lester has been brilliant in his three starts this postseason, with an 0.86 ERA over 21 innings. His best defense remains not letting runners on. But for the Indians, creating havoc on the basepaths has been ingrained in their DNA. In Game 1, it could be the edge the need.
“It has definitely benefitted our team because those are the players that we have here,” Davis said. “So, I can’t see us changing now because it’s the World Series. It has worked all year.”