CLEVELAND -- Jon Lester's glare at the Dodgers' dugout said it all. When Joc Pederson bunted a two-out pitch back to the Cubs lefty, leading Lester to one-hop a throw to first baseman Anthony Rizzo for an out in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the pitcher was
CLEVELAND -- Jon Lester's glare at the Dodgers' dugout said it all. When Joc Pederson bunted a two-out pitch back to the Cubs lefty, leading Lester to one-hop a throw to first baseman Anthony Rizzo for an out in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the pitcher was far from thrilled.
Whether Lester likes it or not -- and his laser-beam stare indicated that he does not -- the book has been out on him for quite some time. Lester's trouble throwing to bases is no secret -- he went the entire 2014 season without a pickoff attempt to first -- and does not require an in-depth advanced scouting meeting to discover. So, as the Indians, one of baseball's elite running teams, prep for facing Lester in Game 1 of the World Series tonight, it absolutely is part of Cleveland's game plan.
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The Indians led the American League with 134 stolen bases, including a league-high 43 from the seemingly ageless Rajai Davis. The Tribe also has a pair of plus runners in Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. Jason Kipnis, who is dealing with an ankle issue, may not factor into the equation as much as he normally would, but the whole lineup knows that an extra base is there for the taking against Lester.
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During the regular season, on plays with a runner only on first base, the average primary lead against a lefty was 10.9 feet and the average secondary lead was 22 feet, per Statcast™. Against Lester, those averages jumped to 14.1 and 23.4, respectively. On successful steals, the averages were 11.1 and 23.1, respectively. So, on average, the runner has three more feet on a primary lead against Lester than typically needed to steal.
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This season, Lester allowed 28 stolen bases, marking the third-highest total in the Majors, and it was actually a big drop-off from 2015, when he allowed 44 swipes.
On all steal attempts of second base, the average primary lead was 11.3 feet this season. The Indians happen to have some of the highest-ranked runners in that regard, too. Lindor ranked fifth with an average primary lead of 12.4 feet on steals of second, while Kipnis (10th at 12.2), Davis (15th at 12.0) and Ramirez (22nd at 11.8) were not far behind.
All of that adds up to an intriguing matchup for Lester in Game 1 of the Fall Classic.
"It's pretty well-documented the problems he's had," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "But, if you take yourself out of your game, you look up in the sixth or seventh inning and it's gone by you. And [you don't want to be] asking guys to do stuff that they normally don't do.
"The good thing is -- again, we've got to get on [base] -- but we've been a very good baserunning team. So, hopefully that'll be something that helps us have a chance to beat him."
Getting in Lester's head is often the goal of every team he encounters.
"It's the threat," said Davis, speaking in general terms, not just about Lester. "It's not just stealing. It's the threat that we could steal it. That right there alone will make them make some mistakes. We've got to get on base, obviously."
Therein lies the real challenge.
The last time Cleveland saw Lester was Aug. 24, 2015, when the left-hander handcuffed the Tribe over 8 2/3 innings. He allowed six hits and issued one walk, but the Indians did not steal a base. That was last year, though. This year's Indians club has been far more aggressive overall on the bases, and not just with stealing. Cleveland rated as one of baseball's top teams in taking extra bases.
"Last time we faced Lester, we didn't get a lot of traffic, so it made no difference," said first-base coach Sandy Alomar. "And let's not be mistaken here. He's been quick to the plate when he slide steps. It's not like he's 1.7 [seconds to the plate] all the time. Hopefully, we get the right approach and the right guys and we'll see where we're at."
During the NLCS, the Dodgers tried to distract Lester upon reaching base, but Los Angeles did little with the huge leads and dancing baserunners. In Game 5, specifically, the Dodgers had more than one instance when a runner worked to a lead of 20-plus feet. In the fourth inning, Howie Kendrick had secondary lead of 34.9 feet off second base on his stolen base, according to Statcast™. Twice, L.A. tried to bunt to force Lester into a mistake.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the team was trying to "get in his psyche a little bit."
The Royals famously had success with that approach against Lester when he was pitching for the A's in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game. Kansas City ran wild the entire game, notching three of its seven steals with Lester on the mound. In the worst postseason start of his career, Lester allowed six runs in 7 1/3 innings in a 12-inning, 9-8 loss.
"There's always plotting going on," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after dealing the Dodgers an 8-4 loss in Game 5. "And the most important thing is that Jon throws the ball well to home plate. That's the most important part of this. That gets overlooked. And I don't want him to get caught up in the minutiae of everything else. Do what you do best. What he does best is he throws pitches very well."
That message was echoed during Monday's World Series workout by Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who noted that Lester maintains a strong mental state throughout his outings. That is why Lester was not rattled when Enrique Hernández was bobbing and weaving and shuffling back and forth, while taking a lead off the left-hander in the first inning in Game 5 of the NLCS.
"We try to use it to our advantage," Bosio said. "But, we don't talk about all of the other things Jon Lester does extremely well. He holds the ball extremely well. He fields his position really well. ... He's the best slide-stepping pitcher, I think, in baseball. Those are the things he has learned how to do well. He has picked some guys off second, he has made some unbelievable plays getting rid of the ball on comebackers or bunts. If they want to continue to do that, go right ahead."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast.