Lester is Terrible at Containing the Running Game, and It Doesn't Seem to Matter

Jon Lester has already given up 30 stolen bases this year, eight more than his career high of 22 set in 2010. His inability to throw to first has been much maligned in the media and by fans. But how much does it matter? It turns out, not really that much. Sure, it would be better if Lester held runners closer and gave up fewer stolen bases, no one is arguing otherwise, but the facts demonstrate that the failure to contain the running game has had a negligible effect on Lester and the Cubs’ overall performance. Moreover, it appears that opposing teams are becoming too aggressive and running into outs—Lester already has more runners caught stealing (6) so far this year than all of last year (5).

The game-by-game breakdown below shows that only 5 runners the entire season who stole bases off Lester eventually scored. Most notably, Billy Hamilton has scored 3 times after stealing off Lester. But Hamilton, who leads the majors by a wide margin with 47 stolen bases already, tends to do that to everyone—and on one he stole 3B and would have scored from 2B on the following hit anyway. Charlie Blackmon, who is 4th in the majors with 27 steals, also scored following a stolen base in the game yesterday. Finally, Jason Heyward (15 stolen bases on the year) stole 2B to get himself into scoring position and later scored on July 6, though he should not have been on base anyway since he reached on an error. In other words, in 132.2 IP, Lester has given up just 4 earned runs that can be partially attributed to stolen bases—three to Hamilton and one to Blackmon, players who had a good chance of stealing those bases even if Lester were good at holding runners (and that counts the Hamilton steal of 3B where he would have scored from 2B anyway). Finally, of the 6 runners caught stealing, at least 4 likely cost the opposing teams runs, including Jimmy Rollins caught inexplicably trying to steal 3B with runners on 1st and 2nd to the end the 2nd inning on June 25th.

Overall, the effect of the running game on runs given up by Lester appears very normal. Jake Arrieta, for example, has given up 14 stolen bases on the year, including 3 in one game twice. And while I am not going to do a full breakdown of all of his games, runners who stole bases in both of those 3-stolen base games scored. Full game-by-game breakdown for Lester after the break.

Lester’s Game-by-Game Breakdown of Stolen Bases and Caught Stealing 

April 5: 3 SBs, but non sored; 1 CS (with runners on 1st and 3rd to end the inning)

April 13: 1 SB, did not score

April 19: 1 SB, did not score

April 24: 3 SBs all by Billy Hamilton and he scored twice

May 1: 1 SB, did not score

May 6: 1 CS that potentially costs the opposing team a run

May 11: 1 SB, did not score

May 16: 2 SBs, did not score

May 22: 3 SBs, did not score

May 27: 0 SBs

June 3: 0 SBs

June 9: 0 SBs, 1 CS that would likely have scored

June 14: 3 SBs by Billy Hamilton again; he stole 2B and 3B but did not score, then stole 3B and scored but would have scored from 2B on the hit that followed anyway

June 20: 2 SBs, did not score

June 25: 0 SBs, 1 CS at 3B to end an inning

July 1: 1 SB, did not score

July 6: 1 SB, runner scores (Jason Heyward stole 2B to get into scoring position, though his run was unearned since he reached on a error); 2 SBs, did not score

July 11: 0 SBs

July 18: 0 SBs, 1 CS to end an inning

July 24: 2 SBs, did not score

July 29: Charlie Blackmon steals 2B and 3B and scores; 2 SBs did not score, 1 CS

UPDATED: What about leads? Runners can advance 1st to 3rd, score from 2B on a single, avoid double plays and extend innings. Perhaps stolen bases are not as harmful as this aspect of the running game? Well, I looked at every single run given up by Lester this year, earned or unearned. Below I describe all of them in a game-by-game breakdown and note the number that can be atributed to leads or base-running outside of stolen bases. I not only took into consideration the actual hit that scored the run but also how runners advanced on the base paths prior to scoring. Where advances were ambigious I consulted the video. The truth: just ONE of 54 runs can be directly attributed to baserunning advances/leads. That's right, just ONE. Matt Carpenter made Lester look silly on Opening Day and got everyone worked up about this. Yet since then it hasn't affected Lester's game. There were only 3-4 other ambiguous plays during the remainder of the season where baserunning/leads might have mattered, but the context (e.g. running on the pitch given 2 outs, very fast runner) and video (e.g. fielder bobbles the ball, shallow hit off end of the bat) revealed that  baserunning/leads played no role in the run scoring.

Certainly it is possible that in innings where runs did not score there were DPs not turned because of leads or advances from 1st to 3rd that eliminated DP opportunities that might have prolonged innings, leading to higher pitch counts and quicker moves to the bullpen, but if that did happen we are talking about a very small, marginal effect on Lester and the Cubs' performance.

Runs Aided by Leads or Base Running / All Runs Lester Allowed

April 5: 1/3 Runs (Single scores runner from second but Soler bobbled twice; Wong walks and then advances to 3B on a deep single to the RCF gap then scores on a single; Carpenter had a huge lead, was dancing off first, and was on the move on a single and advanced to third, he then scored on a single)

April 13: 0/6 Runs (Triple-Double; Double-Single-FC; Floater single to LF scores Phillips from second; Single-Double-Double-Single-Groundout scores 3 no extra advances)

April 19: 0/3 Runs (Single-HR scores 2; Walk-Single then Schlitter allows inherited runner to score from second)

April 24: 0/3 Runs (Single-SB-WP-Single scores Hamilton from third; Single scores Hamilton from third after single and 2 SBs; Double-Groundout-SF)

May 1: 0/0 Runs

May 6: 0/4 Runs (Double scores runner from first but it went under Soler’s glove as he tried to cut it off; Solo HR; check-swing single to CF scores runner from second; line drive single to CF scores runner from second) Note* on the last single, it was Heyward at 2B who runs wells and the throw might have had him but was way off line

May 11: 0/3 Runs (Walk-Single-FC-Single scores runner from third; 2 solo HRs)

May 16: 0/1 Runs (Solo HR)

May 22: 0/2 Runs (Triple-Single; Solo HR)

May 27: 0/2 Runs (Single-Walk-Throwing Error in grounder scores 1; Solo HR)

June 3: 0/6 Runs (Double sores runner from second; single scores runner from third; single scores runner from third; single scores runner from second; 2 solo HRs) Note* It’s difficult to assess the runner scoring from second on the single because Lake boots it in right and has to throw to second, but runner is fast and likely would have scored anyway

June 9: 0/5 Runs (Double-PB-Single scores runner from third; Rajah Davis scores from second on slow single; Single with men on second and third scores 2; Triple-Double scores one, 2 walks later single scores runner from third) *Note: I watched the replay of the 2-run single, very slowly hit and Denorfia had to run far towards the line to get it, no chance at runner at home; they actually cut it and threw out the batter trying to reach second.

June 14: 0/1 Runs (Single scores Hamilton after Double and SB)

June 20: 0/1 Runs (Solo HR)

June 25: 0/4 Runs (Double scores runners from 2B and 3B who had reached on a singles and walks; Walk-Triple-Single scores 2)

July 1: 0/0 Runs

July 6: 0/2 (Runner on 3B due to throwing error scores on SF; single scores Heyward from 2B with 2 outs)

July 11: 0/4 Runs (Double-Triple-Single scores 2; Single w. Runner on 3B, followed by long  double)

July 18: 0/0 Runs

July 24: 0/2 Runs (HBP+Single followed by long double)


July 29: 0/2 Runs (Arenado SF after Blackmon SB; Car-Go homer) 




the leads being taken by runners can't be ignored. there's so much more to the running game than a SB. leads lead to lost opportunities for outs as well as a greater chance at runs (as well as realized runs because of all of this). lester has put up too damn many "4-out" and multiple run innings because of the leads runners get. this is a nice breakdown of 1 aspect of the problem with lester's flaw, though it's probably not the most harmful. also, i don't really get why there's a segment of cubdom that sees lester doing this and it's not only just fine, it's worthy of dismissal. the solution to this issue isn't a radical retooling of lester...it's a rather piss simple issue to solve that doesn't involve a redesign of how he plays the game. he doesn't need to pick off 10 people a year, he only needs to have runners know he may throw over. that's it. that takes away a small chunk of steals and an enormous chunk of extra leads for runners. he only needs a threat... it also takes away the absolute need for a "strong D/arm" catcher and enables a guy who can't hit his weigh (and barely his ob%) to be replaced in the lineup. if the catching crew was montero/schwarber imagine how much worse this would be. in this way, lester is handcuffing a lineup spot when he pitches and a roster spot for the entire team. this "minor" thing IS minor...he just needs to put in the work, physically and/or mentally to do this thing most highschool pitchers can do.

You are assuming that Lester either hasn't or isn't willing to address the issue. It seems more likely that he has tried to fix the problem without success.

i don't know if he needs a shrink or a pitching coach, but he needs to control the running game from 60ft so the catcher doesn't have to try to control it many seconds and 30+ feet more later. the guy has to have a special D/arm guy around on the roster as well as the day he pitches just to make up for his shortcoming. that's a dead spot in the lineup as well as a full time roster guy just to accommodate him. this team can't carry montero/schwarber as stand-alone catchers. imagine either of them controlling lester's running game. it would be a greater nightmare. it's such a simple issue on the surface that has an effect on the team on whole. he's an awesome pitcher...he could be better.

Agreed, and hopefully it is being addressed ( most likely in the off season), but feeling the need to talk about it every time he pitches does not mean it is being ignored or dismissed.

I updated the post with a new section on leads/base running advances. There is no ambiquity here. The evidence is strong in one direction. This just isn't a big deal. Yes, he can improve in this area. Yes, it would be better if he were better at holding runners. But it is not really hurting the team as much as your gut tells you it is. And as others said, they aren't going to solve his Steve Blass pick-off disease by making him worry about it constantly, see a shrink about it, or forcing him to throw over in the middle of the season. They are going to let him keep pitching great baseball (1.66 ERA over his last 6 games) and discuss it in the off-season.

Although I don't follow the Red Sox closely, I don;t recall this being a big issue in the past (?) Maybe AL teams don't run as much?

it wasn't...he's gotten away with it for years. it's one of the defenses some supporters of ignoring the issue brought up earlier. it doesn't hold water anymore. this goes back to the playoffs last year. KC opened some eyes...unfortunately, it was the NL's eyes. curt schilling watches a lot of RSox baseball and when he brought it up on the game he called it wasn't "oh yeah, this happens all the time, no biggie." i'm not a schilling fan, and me and schilling aren't the only people who noticed brewing trouble with his lack of control on the running game.

the fact you set a 0/2 on the last game makes me question the objectivity and bias of how you assign responsibility for runs in all of your study. that one is mad fresh in everyone's mind. you're not only making conclusions, you're calling them strong evidence and what i'm seeing is far from strong evidence. plus, it does nothing to address lost outs due to the leads when a ball is put into play...and i don't expect it to because that's some hard work and a lot of tape to watch. "And as others said, they aren't going to solve his Steve Blass pick-off disease by making him worry about it constantly, see a shrink about it, or forcing him to throw over in the middle of the season." as others said when it was brought up after game 1 "it'll be taken care of if it continues"...and other such musings...and it's still going on. there's no evidence for any change happening or planning to happen, but i keep hoping we don't see this in 2016. i'd like to not see it much more in 2015.

You obviously don't undersand. I already considered the run yesterday as a run attributed to stolen bases above. So there is no questioning my objectivity there. I called that for your argument clearly and up front. You saw that right? You want me to count it twice, which is dumb. The second set of totals were for leads and advancing on plays that did not involve stolen bases. Combine the first set (SBs) and the second (Leads/Advances on base paths) and you can see all of the runs due to not holding runners.

And as I said: "Certainly it is possible that in innings where runs did not score there were DPs not turned because of leads or advances from 1st to 3rd that eliminated DP opportunities that might have prolonged innings, leading to higher pitch counts and quicker moves to the bullpen, but if that did happen we are talking about a very small, marginal effect on Lester and the Cubs' performance." And I stand by that, the effect will be negligible.

no, i was fuzzy on what the update was applied to compared/with the 1st set because of my own confusion. i didn't understand. i got it now. i don't agree this isn't a big deal, but i'm not going to spend time like you did backing up my view aside from the points i've already put up. it's is an unnecessary advantage to give away and it requires a roster spot to accommodate making the advantage less of a sting...unless the cubs win the catcher lottery and produce/snag a great D+arm catcher who can also hit enough to start.

"i'm not going to spend time like you did backing up my view aside from the points i've already put up." Cool

this matters even less than some would believe even though i'm capable of talking about it more than once a month. it's not an insult to those putting the work in. it would require more work than i'm willing to put forth. it's kinda nice having this as my most annoying thing about the cubs right now. for the past 5 years the list has been longer and more urgent in importance.

David Price to the Jays for Daniel Norris. Welp.....

meanwhile, the cubs are linked to 3/5th of the SD rotation...neat.

Not great news for the White Sox.

David Price being traded during the 2015 MLB regular season means whatever team signs Price after he becomes an MLB Article XX-B free-agent post-2015 won't lose a draft pick. 

I would be kind of surprised to see us give another older pitcher a long term big money contract, but who knows.

Hasn't there been a lot of this kind of talk though? Waiting for the offseason to sign Price...Zimmerman...Cueto.. etc? To avoid sacrificing any prospects type of a thing, yeah?

There has, but I expect that they will look to acquire two middle of the rotation starters instead of one ACE. That said, if Price and the other big name starters suck up the attention and money of the elephant hunters that may play into the Cubs favor.

Ah...I get you. I'm assuming that you don't think Hendricks will be long for the rotation then?

Can't have enough starting pitching, and I certainly have no idea what their actual plans are.

Well that stinks...it'd be cool to have a mole on the inside, who knew exactly what their plans were for 2016! :)

Vance Worley DFAed by the Pirates to make room for Blanton. Someone will pick him up. 2.85 ERA last year as a starter, 3.78 this year splitting time between the rotation and bullpen.

Daniel Nava also DFAed by the Red Sox. hope Epstein doesn't get nostalgic and try to pick him up like so many other Boston cast-offs.

holy crap...the dodgers/braves/marlins trade is supposedly a 13-player trade. Dodgers receive: Latos and Morse from the Marlins, plus pitchers Alex Wood, Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan and Bronson Arroyo, along with infield prospect Jose Peraza from the Braves. Braves receive: Infield prospect Hector Olivera, minor-league pitcher Zachary Bird, and major-league lefty Paco Rodriguez. They also get a competitive balance draft pick from the Marlins. Marlins receive: Three minor-league pitchers from the Dodgers -- right-handers Jeff Brigham, Victor Araujo and Kevin Guzman. the dodgers are...insane right now.

Nats pitchers today: Scherzer/Storen/Papelbon. Win 1-0.

Bleacher Report sez the two minor leaguers for Haren are Elliot Soto If, and Ivan Pineyro, Rhp.

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  • Hagsag 2 hours 49 min ago (view)

    Explain how Lobaton is on this team?


  • Jackstraw 12 hours 12 min ago (view)

    The Cubs have looked pretty April for the last week.


  • George Altman 13 hours 41 min ago (view)

    I'm pretty sure I've seen enough of Arrieta and Davies to last me the rest of the summer. 


  • crunch 16 hours 17 min ago (view)

    e.sogard pitching...the highlight of the last 2 games, easy...

    3 popouts...threw mid/high 60s batting practice lobs with some sink

    he's scoreless through 2ip in his career.  david ross career pitching comps...


  • crunch 17 hours 14 min ago (view)

    same...only it's coffee...which isn't helping.  yesterday's trash game got a sequel.


  • crunch 17 hours 16 min ago (view)

    yeah...we can go ahead and send cory abbott back down...


  • crunch 17 hours 27 min ago (view)

    hopefully the cubs can work out an extension for jason heyward to keep him around til then.


  • Hagsag 17 hours 27 min ago (view)

    This game is making me drink a lot.


  • Dolorous Jon Lester 17 hours 39 min ago (view)

    Just wait til the 2030 season, those kids will be entering their prime then. Look out NL Central!


  • crunch 18 hours 43 min ago (view)

    im starting to think spending 12.6m of payroll on davies/arrietta while trading darvish away for davies and a slew of kids that dont even make the cubs top 10 prospect list wasn't a good idea.

    oh yeah, cubs gave SD money in that deal, too...that's even better.


  • Arizona Phil 1 day 9 hours ago (view)

    The Cubs have purchased the contract of RHP Justin Shafer (ex-MIA) from Kansas City (American Association) and he has been assigned to AAA Iowa. 


  • crunch 1 day 11 hours ago (view)

    he -really- needs to cue into this is a cubs broadcast and not a national/neutral broadcast.

    dude...don't get excited about marlins 3-run homers.


  • crunch 1 day 12 hours ago (view)

    lot of people wanted him when len left.  he's got a long game calling history, but not too much for baseball.  he did host "baseball tonight" for ESPN for a quite a while, so the game isn't a mystery to him.

    i find him a bit boring/dry.  some people like that he has that oldschool "announcer voice" thing going on.


  • Dolorous Jon Lester 1 day 13 hours ago (view)

    He's uhhh.. not very good at it. Glad he wasn't the hire for the main role.


  • crunch 1 day 13 hours ago (view)

    wow...chris myers calling the cubs game for some reason (boog out for the MIA series).

    he is a marquee talent, but he's not been used to call a game as far as i know.

    also, zach davies looks like a kid in pajamas in those dark blue "wrigleyville" uniforms.


  • crunch 2 days 12 hours ago (view)

    t.williams threw a 25 pitch pen thursday