Jon Lester Can Pick His Nose and He Can Pick His Friends, but Everyone Knows He Can’t Pick Off His Friends

If you think I’m a few days behind on this topic, you’re probably right. Then again, it’s a long season and the horse that is Jon Lester’s pick-off move is still moving along at a nice trot and I wanted to get a few swings in on it before the Sun-Times boys turn it into glue.

After Sunday’s subpar start, Cubdom was abuzz with talk of Lester’s unwillingness, or flat-out inability, to throw over to first. This conversation grew from seeds planted and cultivated by the broadcasting trio of Curt Schilling, John Kruk, and Dan Shulman (though the latter was more an innocent bystander), who did a masterful job of maintaining ESPN’s reputation as a greenhouse for lopsided narratives.

Even as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the game a couple years ago in which Bobby Valentine performed a very public, very drawn-out character assassination of Starlin Castro. When it comes to unbridled jackassery, guys like Schilling and Bobby V can’t even hope to approach a clown like Skip Bayless, they’ve certainly done their best at times. They’re like Cookie and Wizzo to Bayless’s Bozo.

It’s just a good thing Lester himself never appeared on The Bozo Show though, since, based on the stats we were shown time and again, it’s clear that would’ve sucked at the Grand Prize Game. That’s because, you know, he can’t toss the ball.

Oh hey, have we mentioned lately that he didn’t attempt a pick-off throw in 2014? Man, if teams figure this out, they’ll run on Lester all day. The Cubs spent $155 million on this?! Rabble, rabble! Grrrrr!

Nothing like supplying a statistic and then failing to provide the proper context with which to examine it. They did flash the graphic displaying the decreasing frequency of Lester’s moves to first, but that only served to spur a conversation about the yips. And while that’s not necessarily an irresponsible conclusion in and of itself, it’s an incomplete picture at best.

About the drop-off in throws over: from 2009-14, Lester attempted 79, 98, 70, 5, 7, and 0 moves respectively. Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs had a great article on this subject at the end of last season and his conclusions bear quite a bit more responsible analysis than those of the characters in the booth last Sunday. As Sullivan wrote, “Lester is not a guy who’s easy to steal a base against. He’s a guy who hasn’t thrown a ball over. From a statistical standpoint, that’s amazing, but from an in-game standpoint, that means surprisingly little.”

So to those fans who were up in arms after seeing the Cardinals running aggressively against the Cubs new ace, I share the immortal words of Seth Gecko: “It’s not a big deal, unless you make it a big deal. Now, I’m real happy, [so] stop bringing me down with bull—-.” I will grant that that might sound a little harsh, but it’s the truth.

The game, after all, is about results. Pointing to Lester’s lack of pick-off moves and saying that it’s a big problem is tantamount to decrying Jeff Samardzija’s win totals from his time with the Cubs. Stats lie, folks. Or they can certainly be made to if we don’t take the time to properly examine them.

Last season, opposing runners stole 16 bases (9th-highest total in MLB) on Jon Lester. That’s not a small total, to be sure, but it’s far from the worst. Scott Feldman, who you may remember as the guy many fans were upset about being traded to Baltimore for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, allowed 35 runners to advance on him. Even the great Felix Hernandez gave up 20 stolen bases in 2014.

Lester allowed 12 steals in 2013 and 13 in 2012, so we might be able to draw the conclusion that even his nominal throw-over attempts helped to suppress a couple steals here and there. But that all falls apart, however, when we look at the 2011 season, in which he threw to first 70 times yet allowed 14 steals. And we can basically set that theory ablaze when reviewing a 2010 season that saw 98 throws and 22 steals. The 2009 season: 19 steals against 79 throws.

Now, if you don’t mind grabbing that shovel over there, I’m gonna need you to dig a shallow grave for that little hypothesis; I’m worried that some of the takes on this topic could still be smoldering. Only you can prevent forest fires.

Admittedly, I’m not scouring film and lineup cards to review each and every nuance of Lester’s previous seasons, so I’m perhaps falling victim to some of the same contextual shortcomings that I lambasted the 4-Letter Network over. However, I’m not trying to make my own statement so much as I simply wanted to disprove theirs. Given the myriad nuances of the game of baseball, it’s far too simplistic to take one stat and say that it makes a definitive statement about another.

Maybe Lester did get the yips a few seasons ago and he’s afraid to throw over. Or maybe he or one of his coaches measured the results of his pick-off attempts against the potential risk of a bad throw and realized that a quick look over to first from the lefty was even more effective than additional throws. Remember, a lefty is facing the runner at first, thereby adding a little inherent fear of taking a big lead.

The Cubs didn’t give Jon Lester $155 million without knowing exactly what they were paying for, and that includes his scarcity of pick-off attempts. I just wish the guys at ESPN would be as judicious when it comes tossing their meatball thoughts out there.


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