Jon Lester doesn’t throw to first. This isn’t new. In the National League Championship Series, Dodgers runners tried to dance off the first-base bag, taking large leads to try and disrupt Lester. By and large, it didn’t really work. The Dodgers didn’t take the extra base, and Lester had few problems pitching to the Dodgers with runners on.
Last night, in Game One of the World Series, the circumstances were mostly the same. On paper, at least. Cleveland did steal a base against Lester, but they also got caught stealing once, too. That’s actually a net positive for the Cubs in terms of runs. Again, on paper.
One of those stolen bases belonged to Francisco Lindor, though. Not only did the young shortstop steal a base in the first inning, but he preceded it with some of the same sort of dancing with which the Dodgers experimented previously. The end result of that first innings was two runs for Cleveland — the only two they’d need to win the game.
Was there anything Francisco Lindor did that might have gotten Lester out of rhythm in the first inning, or were the two walks and hit-by-pitch that followed simply ill-timed luck. Is there any evidence that ties Lindor’s steal to Lester’s head?
On the season, Lester threw 64% of his pitches for strikes. Generally speaking, he relies on swinging strikes to get batters out, as his strike-zone percentage of 46% placed him among the bottom quarter of qualified pitchers this year. Of the first eight pitches he threw before Lindor’s single, Lester recorded seven strikes, retiring Rajai Davis on four pitches and inducing a first-pitch out from Jason Kipnis. Lindor was only on first base for two pitches, both called balls by the umpire. The second pitch was in the strike zone, but as is sometimes the case on stolen-base attempts, David Ross‘ movements to prepare for throwing out the runner didn’t provide a good opportunity for framing; the pitch, likely as a result, was called a ball.
Six of Lester’s next eight pitches were balls, and suddenly the bases were loaded. For the rest of the game, Lester threw 64% of his pitches for strikes, just like the regular season. Unfortunately for Lester, one of the balls went to human ball-magnet Brandon Guyer, who has what could be generously called a “strategy” for getting hit. That HBP and a swinging bunt on the previous pitch led to the 2-0 Cleveland lead that proved to be the difference.
Let’s take a look at what Lindor did to “distract” Lester. Here’s the stolen base itself:
It doesn’t appear that Lindor does anything out of the ordinary here. He took perhaps a slightly larger lead than normal, and then ran on first movement. Lindor was safe, as Ross had difficulty getting the ball out of the glove. When August Fagerstrom discussed Lester and Ross, he went through the numbers on why it’s so difficult to steal on them despite Lester’s throwing problems:
Well, let’s run some math. The problem here is, Lester and Ross are quick. All of the following information comes from Statcast, provided by Mike Petriello. Lester was getting the ball to the plate between 1.1 and 1.2 seconds last night, and Ross’s average pop time for the season was 1.95, which ranked sixth among 83 catchers with at least five throws to second base. Both those figures could be considered plus to elite on a scouting scale, and as a battery, their ~3.15 time to second base is hard to beat.
Lindor took advantage of a slightly larger lead and the knowledge that he could leave on first movement without consequence. Those two things together likely put Lindor’s chances of stealing a base at something like average for him, after factoring in the speed of Lester’s delivery and Ross’s pop time. Did the steal get in Lester’s head to help cause the walks of the next two batters as Rajai Davis intimated?