The Chicago Cubs have a $US155 million problem.
Chicago signed one of the biggest prizes in free agency this winter when they locked up Jon Lester to a six-year, $US155 million contract to be their ace. However, in his first two starts with the team a major issue has emerged: Lester is struggling to make one of the basic plays in baseball, and it is getting worse.
Lester can’t make routine pickoff throws to first base, which has led to speculation that he has the yips.
On Monday night, Lester made two pickoff attempts to first base. These were significant because they were Lester’s first pickoff attempts in 67 starts, dating back to April 2013.
And we can see why he didn’t throw to first for two years.
The first throw was not terrible, but it did cause first baseman Anthony Rizzo to come off the bag to make the catch.
But Lester’s second pickoff was a disaster, with the ball sailing well over Rizzo’s head and into right field.
In this case, Lester got bailed out when right fielder Jorge Soler threw the runner out at third base. But it appears clear at this point that Lester doesn’t want to throw to first base and if he does, bad things are going to happen.
That Lester has struggled with his pickoff move is not new. As pointed out by Ben Lindbergh of Grantland.com, Lester has started working on improving his pickoff attempts as early as the spring of 2012. Teams almost certainly noticed Lester had stopped throwing to first base in 2013 and 2014.
But what differs now is that before Monday night, Lester still had the threat of throwing to first base and keeping potential basestealers close to the bag.
From the point of the view of the runner, there is a big difference between thinking the pitcher doesn’t like to throw to first base and knowing the pitcher can’t throw to first base.
Up until this point, runners did not appear to be taking much advantage of Lester’s lack of pickoff attempts. The data compiled by Lindbergh shows that runners are not attempting steals much more often than the Major League average of 5.6% stolen base attempts over the last seven seasons. However, there was a pretty sharp rise in 2014 over the previous two seasons when Lester may have still had a reputation as being a good pickoff pitcher.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe that he thinks the problem is “being a little overplayed right now” and that it “will get better.”
But until it does, the cat is clearly out of the bag now and teams are going to run all over the Cubs until Lester shows other teams the problem is fixed.