Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester still has things under control

Last year’s Royals caused us to fall in love with stolen bases all over again. The AL Wild Card Game put their utility on display, and it was around that game the whole nation turned its attention to Jon Lester’s refusal to attempt any pickoffs. I probably don’t need to review this for you, so I’ll skip ahead. When Lester began this year with the Cubs, plenty of people were wondering whether he’d attempt more pickoffs than the zero he tried in 2014. He seemed like a pitcher who could be taken advantage of.

Flash back to the first month of the season. Lester threw over, all right. Twice. Sort of. Check it out.

It got worse. This one went viral, sailing way away from first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Two attempts, with one bad throw, and one dreadful throw right after. Lester put the pickoff in his back pocket, not trying again until Thursday. Here’s what happened, if you aren’t already sick of watching the highlight on television. Another ball thrown past Rizzo.

I think this much is safe to say: Lester, pretty clearly, has a mental block. It’s possible this is all a fluke, but it’s highly unlikely, as it seems like Lester simply isn’t comfortable throwing the baseball in that direction. All right, that much we’ve suspected for a while. It’s also safe to say that the Royals sort of opened the floodgates. During last year’s regular season, Lester never threw over, but he allowed just 16 stolen bases. This year he’s up to a league-leading 35, after Thursday’s mayhem. The Brewers stole five times, four times in the third inning alone. No longer can Lester keep a runner close just by looking at him. This year, the runners are taking more chances. This year, Lester is letting them.

It’s easy to see the mistakes. It’s easy to see the three bad throws out of three attempted throws, and it’s easy to see the runners running wild. It’s easy to remember what happened to Lester in Kansas City. Given all this information, and given the rather extraordinary nature of the issue, it’s easy to figure this is a big deal. That the baserunners are out of control. To some extent, they absolutely are. But by far the thing that remains most important is Lester is really good at getting outs. The running game isn’t the factor it’s made out to be.

That Wild Card Game was exceptional. It was exceptionally conspicuous, with an exceptionally good running team, and an exceptionally bad battery with regard to holding people close. Throw in a little bit of luck and it makes sense why the significance of the running game would be exaggerated. Almost no game looks like that game. Hell, just take Thursday. Five steals for the Brewers against Lester in six innings. Still just two runs. In large part because Lester finished with 10 strikeouts.

There are a few ways to go about analyzing this. Let’s go direct. This year, 31 runners have stolen against Lester, including guys who have stolen two bases in a row. Out of those 31 runners, six went on to score in the inning. That’s a hair below 20%, and even without the steals, some of those guys would’ve presumably scored anyway. Right there, you can see this hasn’t been a nightmare. And on Lester’s watch, another eight runners have been thrown out. It’s not like every single steal attempt is successful. And it’s not like every single baserunner takes off. Lester’s still quick to the plate, and catcher David Ross attempted several pickoffs of his own on Thursday. Care still needs to be taken, no matter how easy stealing might seem.

As you know, pickoffs aren’t just about steal prevention. They also just keep runners closer, making it a little more difficult to advance an extra base on a ball in play. Runners, in theory, take smaller leads and get worse first steps against pitchers who are a threat to throw them out. Here’s an example of the Brewers not respecting Lester’s ability to throw back to second.

Look at the runner. He leaves the screen with the pitch on the way. It’s an unusually large lead, and this could be another way for Lester’s issue to cost him valuable runs. There’s the direct baserunning effect and the indirect baserunning effect, and both of them might matter.

Let’s try something. On FanGraphs, we do have a measure of stolen-base value for pitchers, either positive or negative. A negative number means the pitcher was easier to steal against. A positive number means stealing was a challenge. We’ll use this number as a proxy for general baserunner control. It shouldn’t surprise you that, in 2015, Lester has the most negative number in baseball in this category, albeit by a small margin.

We have this information going back to 2003, so I pulled all the pitcher seasons since 2003, with a minimum of 100 innings. For every pitcher season, I calculated stolen-base value on a per-180-innings basis, to give everyone a common denominator. I sorted by the result, then I selected the 30 best steal-seasons, and the 30 worst steal-seasons. I wanted to see the effects this might have on runs actually scoring.

Those pitchers who were the best at preventing steals? They averaged a 4.39 ERA, with a 4.41 FIP. They stranded 72% of runners.

Those pitchers who were the worst at preventing steals? They averaged a 4.34 ERA, with a 4.24 FIP. They stranded 71% of runners.

You can see a very slight effect. The pitchers who allowed steals were a little worse than you’d expect — by roughly two runs in a full season, on average. That’s not nothing, but that’s not really something to cry over. What if, instead of groups of 30, we looked at groups of 40? Then the strand rates become identical. There’s a difference of just 0.08 between ERA and FIP for the lots-of-steals group.

It’s not that it doesn’t matter at all. It’s that it doesn’t matter that much. Sometimes it can matter a lot in one game, but one game can turn on literally anything. I’ve seen Ben Revere hit home runs three times. I saw Munenori Kawasaki go deep once. I’ve seen Clayton Kershaw suddenly fall apart in the playoffs. Weird things happen, all the damned time. Sometimes, steals get the best of a starting pitcher. Other times, a starting pitcher gets the best of a lineup, steals or no.

What matters more than anything is that Lester still pitches like a No. 1. And while he might struggle to throw to first base, there are no problems with his overall concentration when there are runners on. The average pitcher is a little worse with men on, sometimes because of issues with the stretch, sometimes because of holes opening up in the defense. Last year, Lester allowed a .646 OPS with the bases empty, and a .616 OPS with the bases not empty. This year, he’s at .701 and .631, respectively. There have been fewer big hits with men on, and that’s saved at least as many runs as the stolen bases have cost. Think of it as evening out. Runners have moved up more on their own, but they’ve been moved around less by their teammates.

It’s true that Lester doesn’t control the running game very well. The Cubs still saw him as worthy of the investment because he’s much better at controlling the hitting game. I know that sounds simplistic, but here we are, and Lester’s still successful, despite the obvious problem. One should expect it to continue like this. The runners will matter, but only a little, unless Lester ends up in the worst possible circumstance at the worst possible time. So far, that’s happened once.

And this year, CC Sabathia is the guy who has yet to attempt a single pickoff. We’ll see if that ever becomes the story that Lester did.