Jon Lester’s troubles holding runners on base are well-documented. He almost refuses to throw over to first, and when he does, it’s not an actual attempt to pick off the runner.
He has taken time to work on it, though. Not necessarily by improving his pickoff move, but by changing his looks and his holds before throwing a pitch. It’s helped control the continuous track meet that typically happens between first and second base when Lester is on the mound.
During Lester’s first year with the Cubs in 2015, opponents stole a base 44 times, and only 20 percent of runners were pegged. In 2016, he allowed 28 stolen bases and 32 percent were caught stealing. In 2017, those numbers were 19 and 39 percent (league average was 27 percent).
But while Lester is moving in the right direction in that regard, he is moving in the other direction at the same time in a different category. While he has put more emphasis on holding runners on, his numbers against the guy at the plate in those situations have deteriorated. According to STATS Video Solution data, in 2015 with a runner on first, opponents hit .217 (avg.)/.265 (on-base)/.358 (slug.) against Lester with a runner on first base. In 2016, they hit .278/.327/.351. In 2017, those numbers rose to .310/.373/.420.
It’s not as though Lester has had a different catcher each season who is better than the last at throwing runners out, either. In 2015 with David Ross as Lester’s personal catcher, Ross threw out 26 percent of base stealers, while league average sat at 28 percent. In 2016, Ross was right at the league average of 27 percent. In 2017, Willson Contreras caught 28 of Lester’s 32 starts. Contreras threw out 27 percent of base stealers, again right at league average.
Beyond changing up his looks and his holds to keep baserunners from swiping second base, Lester also throws his four- and two-seam fastballs more with a runner on first base. Overall, he threw those two pitches a combined 50 percent in 2017. With a runner on first base, he upped it to 59 percent. The problem with the exaggerated use of those two pitches, however, is that hitters attacked them like they knew they were coming.
With a runner on first base in 2017, hitters slashed .359/.444/.462 off Lester’s four-seam, and .375/.412/.438 off his two-seam. In all other situations, hitters slashed .248/.305/.424 off Lester’s four-seam and .273/.309/.364 off his two-seam.
Dive into SVS a little deeper, and you can see the numbers get even bleaker for Lester in the first two pitches of an at-bat with a runner on first, where he typically pounds the zone with fastballs. In 0-0 counts with a runner on first, Lester threw a four- or two-seam fastball 73 percent of the time; opponents were 5 for 14 in those situations, with four of those hits coming off four- or two-seams. Overall, in 0-0 counts (so, not just with a runner on first), Lester threw four- or two-seams 62 percent of the time.
In 1-0 or 0-1 counts with a runner on first, Lester threw 61 percent fastballs, and opponents were 7 for 14; four of those coming off four- or two-seams, the other three coming off cut fastballs. Overall in those 1-0 or 0-1 counts, Lester threw four- or two-seamers 47 percent of the time.
Lester also got the ball from his hand to the catcher’s mitt faster with a runner on first base by throwing his curveball less often in those situations. While Lester threw his curveball 13 percent of the time in 2017, that number dropped to nine percent with runners on first, although he posted a groundball rate of 54 percent on that pitch last year. For sake of including all the data on Lester and for those curious about 2018, we can look at his trends so far this season through SVS.
It’s been a similar story as far as pitch selection early this season, though sample size is obviously small with Lester only making two starts. With a runner on first, Lester has pumped in 63 percent four- or two-seam fastballs, though with much better results – opponents are 0 for 9 against Lester with a runner on first, with six punchouts and no stolen base attempts. That’s compared to 59 percent four- or two-seam fastballs overall.