It's rarely news when a pitcher throws to first base, unless perhaps he's picking off a runner to end a World Series game. Enter Jon Lester, who threw to first base for the first time since April 30, 2013, on Monday. Here's what happened.
Now we know why Lester never throws over there.
Because Lester has a relatively quick slide step to home plate, he hadn't been burned too much by base stealers the past two seasons. He allowed 12 steals in 16 attempts in 2013 and 16 in 21 attempts in 2014. However, in his first start with the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals, who ranked second-to-last in the NL in steals in 2014, swiped three bases. The Reds stole one base on Monday. You have to think, now that word has gotten around that Lester has the yips when throwing to first base, teams will start being more aggressive, taking bigger leads and taking more risks.
How important is holding runners? Before the game, Joe Maddon said it's not a big deal:
Q to Maddon before the game. "Is the throwing to first an overblown story?" A: "Yes"— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) April 14, 2015
Well ... what else is he going to say? I know Maddon is one of the more upfront managers, but I'd say the last thing he's going to do is express concern about this and put more thoughts in Lester's head. Obviously, Lester knows he has a problem, something he didn't have early in his career -- from 2006 through 2011, he did pick off 24 runners. Maddon understands that in the big picture of scoring runs, stolen bases aren't a big contributor, unless at a high success rate (somewhere between 70 to 75 percent is considered the break-even point).
But it is a little thing that can make a small difference in run prevention. Ask Mark Buehrle, owner of one of the best pickoff moves in the game, a guy who has allowed just 59 stolen bases in his career and has picked off 97 runners. Buehrle's career FIP -- that's Fielding Independent Pitching, which attempts to strip the defense behind a pitcher and tell us how the pitcher should have done, given the three main things he can control: walks, strikeouts and home runs -- is 4.11.
What the basic version of FIP doesn't factor in, however, is a pitcher's ability to prevent steals. Buehrle's career FIP is 4.11; his career ERA is 3.81. That's a difference of about 102 runs over his career. Maybe his ability to hold runners explains the difference? (It's worth noting Andy Pettitte, with his legendary pickoff move, had a higher career ERA than FIP, though he also pitched in front of some bad defensive teams with the Yankees.)
There was a time when holding runners was actually an afterthought for many pitchers. Greg Maddux, for example, allowed 20-plus steals every year of his career except 1988 and 1989, and he allowed 25 or more 12 times. In 2007, he allowed 37 steals in 39 attempts. I think he managed to do OK for himself. Dwight Gooden holds the single-season record for stolen bases allowed: 60 in 76 attempts in 1990. His FIP that year was 2.44, but his ERA was 3.83. Of course, Howard Johnson at shortstop and Gregg Jefferies at second base probably played as big a role as the steals in the ERA-FIP difference.
Gooden, though extreme (he also allowed 56 steals in 1988), was fairly typical of power pitchers of that era, who kept their high leg kicks even with runners on. Nolan Ryan allowed 40-plus steals six times. Floyd Youmans was a hard-throwing right-hander who matched Gooden with a 56-steal season. Mike Scott allowed 53 in 1990. Tom Seaver allowed 50 in 1983, though that was an outlier (never more than 27 in any other season). You get the idea: Guys ran, and power pitchers didn't care a whole lot.
As stolen base totals went crazy in the late 1970s and 1980s, with thieves such as Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman and Tim Raines, more pitchers developed the slide step to get a quicker release to home plate. Steals per game peaked in 1987, at .85 per game, and remained at .70 as late as 1999, before the combination of slide steps and power (less of a need to run) put less emphasis on the running game. In 2014, teams averaged 0.57 steals per game. The past season, only 10 pitchers allowed at least 20 steals, topped by Scott Feldman's 35. A.J. Burnett (33) and Tyson Ross (31) were also above 30. Back in 1987, 21 pitchers allowed 30-plus steals, and 48 allowed 20-plus.
Back to Lester. We'll see if this becomes a bigger deal. After Monday's errant toss, it seems fair to suggest Lester won't be throwing over there any time soon.
Plus, the bigger priority right now is getting him to pitch well. Although the Cubs rallied to win 7-6 in 10 innings, Lester had his second subpar outing, with 10 hits and six runs allowed in six innings.