For all the star power on display in the Cubs-Nationals National League Division Series, from Bryce Harper to Kristopher Bryant to Daniel Murphy to Anthony Rizzo, we all know what the real story is going to be in Game 2, because it's the same story every time Jonathan Lester takes
For all the star power on display in the Cubs-Nationals National League Division Series, from Bryce Harper to Kristopher Bryant to Daniel Murphy to Anthony Rizzo, we all know what the real story is going to be in Game 2, because it's the same story every time Jonathan Lester takes the mound, especially in a big game. It's going to be about whether his well-documented inability to make a pickoff throw to first base will allow the other team to run wild.
We saw this issue burn him in the 2014 American League Wild Card Game, when he was on the mound for three of a record seven Royals stolen bases, and in his first start this year, when Aledmys Diaz stole two. We saw it not affect him so much last October, when despite comically large leads, the Dodgers didn't press the issue in the NLDS, and when the Indians managed just two steals against him in three World Series games, despite well-stated plans to take advantage.
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But the Nationals have Trea Turner. They have Victor Robles. They have Wilmer Difo, and Michael A. Taylor, which is to say they have elite, game-changing speed. Can they take advantage in a way that the Dodgers and Indians could not, especially after being unable to score on Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs in a 3-0 Game 1 loss? And if not, why not?
Let's start with the numbers, first, and there are three points worth making.
1. Runners do take the largest leads against Lester
There were 53 pitchers this year who had at least 10 stolen-base attempts against them, and not only did none of those pitchers allow a longer average lead on steals than Lester did, it wasn't close, according to Statcast™. Runners got off to a 15.1-foot primary lead against him, easily the highest in baseball, and well ahead of the 12.8 feet allowed by the next-highest pitcher. (The average lefty surrenders only 11.7 feet on steal attempts.)
For a runner, that's compelling. The distance between bases doesn't have to be 90 feet, if you choose to make it less. So we know that getting out there against Lester isn't just possible, it's already reality.
2. Lester (with one exception) never, ever throws to first
This year, Justin Verlander led the Majors by throwing over to first 158 times. Eighteen pitchers did so at least 100 times, 99 did so at least 50 times, and a full 631 did so at least twice. Lester was not among them. Realize that there were 755 pitchers who appeared in the Majors this year, including position players, so 84 percent of all pitchers threw over at least twice. Not Lester. He did it once, in 32 starts.
Now, we need to be fair and point out that the one time he did it, he did catch a totally shocked Tommy Pham for the out. That's one pickoff in one try, as opposed to Verlander's zero pickoffs in 158 times. So there is that, but he's had seasons in the past, like 2014, where he's thrown over zero times. He did it just once in 2017. He also hit his first career homer this year, so perhaps that happening again is about as likely.
3. The Nationals are well-equipped to exploit this
Part of the reason the 2016 Dodgers didn't press the issue is because they simply weren't a running team, finishing with 45 steals, the fourth-fewest in the Majors. But this year's Nationals had 108 steals, the fifth-most in baseball, led by Turner, who had 46 steals, baseball's third-most, despite missing two months due to injury. They were also third in the Majors in FanGraphs' BaseRunning Runs stat, which measures all baserunning decisions.
But it's not just Turner, in terms of speed. Just look at our Sprint Speed leaderboards, which measure speed in terms of feet per second in a player's fastest 1-second window and considers 27 feet/second to be the average. Turner is 15th of more than 450 qualified players, at 29.2 ft./sec. Difo is 21st, at 29 ft./sec. And while he doesn't have enough runs to qualify, 20-year-old rookie Robles may be the fastest of them all; his first triple was tracked as the fastest home-to-third time by any National in the three seasons of Statcast™.
Remember, the Nats didn't hesitate to go after the Cubs when they met on June 27, stealing seven bases (four by Turner) off Jacob Arrieta, which was tied for the most steals in a game of any team this season.
So: Why don't runners go?
While Lester helps himself with his reputation for having a quick slide step, he can also thank his catchers. Last year, it was David Ross, who used elite skills behind the plate to either scare runners into not stealing or to back-pick them to at first base if they got too far off. This year, it's Willson Contreras, who led all Major League catchers with an average of 87.2 mph on "max effort" throws. Last year, Lester had a 32 percent caught-stealing rate; this year, with Contreras catching 90 percent of his innings, that jumped to 39 percent, one of baseball's 20 best marks. Contreras can make a runner pay, as Turner himself found out.
So it's not without risk, obviously, but that also points to a reason to do this differently from the Dodgers last year, which is to say, there's not much point in taking a huge lead and not actually going. Remember that Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernandez were, at times, more than 20 feet off the base. Hernandez would dance around, trying to distract Lester. But he didn't go. If you're going to be that far off the base, Contreras can get you going back at first. It's not worth taking the risk without going; it is worth taking the risk of going.
But there's another aspect to this, too. Obviously, this has been an issue Lester has dealt with for years, and it hasn't stopped him from being successful; he did, after all, finish second in the NL Cy Young Award balloting last year. The biggest reason why he's been able to minimize this issue is because he does a great job of avoiding it in the first place -- he allows relatively few runners on.
"Always the best method is to keep him off base," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said this week about the prospect of Turner facing Lester.
Maddon is right. Last year, Lester's .268 OBP against was tied for the fifth best in baseball among qualified starters. But this year hasn't been one of Lester's best, with an ERA of 5.51 over the last two months, and his OBP against of .320 is tied for 35th. The fewer hitters he gets out at the plate, the more who threaten to run on the bases.
It might not work, as Pham found out. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Then again, not being aggressive on the bases hasn't worked out very well, either, as the Dodgers and Indians found. Runners aren't used to being that far off the base without a throw coming. But we've seen this time and again. A throw from Lester, almost certainly, is not coming. The Nats ought to make the most of it.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.