It was a few years ago when we all learned about Jon Lester‘s pick-off problem. There was speculation that the Royals might take advantage in their one-game playoff against the A’s. The Royals could run, after all. And, against Lester that evening, Royals base-stealers went 3-for-4. In the one failure, Billy Butler just wandered off first base for some reason.
Lester’s same problem was supposed to be a major factor in the current World Series. The Indians were supposed to be able to take better advantage than the Giants and Dodgers. I suppose it’s possible that Lester could show up in relief in Game 7, but assuming that doesn’t happen, the Series is in the books as far as Lester on the field is concerned. Twice, the Indians were successful stealing against him. Twice, the Indians got thrown out. Jon Lester wasn’t exploited.
In the first game, Francisco Lindor went 1-for-2, as a runner. Sunday night, Rajai Davis was 1-for-1, and Lindor went 0-for-1. Davis stole in the sixth, and he scored to narrow the deficit to one. Lindor tried to steal in the sixth, but it didn’t work. It would’ve been a pretty big advance, but Lindor was done in in part by skill and in part by psychology.
Here’s Davis. David Ross couldn’t handle the baseball on the transfer, which is also how Lindor stole in Game 1.
And now here’s Lindor:
It’s time to dig into this! Quickly, you might notice something. Here’s Davis as Lester began to throw:
Here’s Lindor at almost exactly the same time:
Okay, that’s one factor — Davis had a better lead by about two and a half feet. In other words, Davis was about 4% closer to second base, based on the distance there from the secondary lead. Clearly, a huge factor is that, with Davis, Ross couldn’t even get off a throw. Ross got off a perfect throw with Lindor running. Javier Baez applied a perfect tag. Lester was even about 5% faster getting the ball to Ross in the first place. Compared to Davis, Lindor arrived at second base about 0.2 – 0.3 seconds slower. That’s huge, as steals are concerned, and so Lindor was out without so much as a replay review.
Lindor getting thrown out reduced the Indians’ odds of winning by about 3.7 percentage points. Had Lindor gotten in there safely, it would’ve increased the Indians’ odds of winning by about 1.9 percentage points, so, the break-even rate there is 66%. It made sense for Lindor to go if he believed he’d be safe at least two-thirds of the time. That feels like a safe assumption, when you’re Francisco Lindor, running against Jon Lester. It’s supposed to be nearly automatic, right? Even Joe Maddon conceded as much before the series began.
But not only did the Cubs execute with perfection — Lindor just couldn’t bring himself to go crazy. This is the same thing I wrote about a week and a half ago. Based on his lead and jump, sure, you can see how the Cubs threw Lindor out. But why didn’t he take an even bigger lead, to get an even better jump? Lindor simply would’ve felt too vulnerable. He would’ve felt naked out there, doing something you’re never supposed to do against a lefty. Jon Lester looks the part, and you have to really, really, truly believe he’s not throwing over. Lindor couldn’t accept that, even though Lester had just bluffed.
Go back to Game 1. This is nuts.
Lindor saw this for himself. In Game 1, he would’ve been an easy out, but Lester couldn’t do anything, so Lindor could scamper back. Lindor observed firsthand that Lester couldn’t and wouldn’t throw over. It’s so easy to sit here now and say “Just go! Just go! Who cares!” But that sells the psychology short. Lester is protected by the uniqueness of his pick-off problem. Francisco Lindor probably could’ve had a way bigger lead, and, given that lead, he probably could’ve stolen second base. It would’ve been a pretty important steal, with Mike Napoli batting. But Lindor fell into the same trap most runners fall into. Jon Lester’s problem doesn’t make sense. Therefore, it’s mighty difficult to believe.