Jon Lester is being brought in because he’s a helluvan awesome pitcher. Let’s just be crystal clear about that.
And the relative difference in value a pitcher provides in the National League between his pitching ability and his defensive/offensive ability is enormous. The absolute best National League pitchers last year, in terms of offensive and defensive value (and baserunning), added about 1.0 WAR to their total (Madison Bumgarner and Travis Wood), and the absolute worst (BartoLOL CoLOLn) subtracted just 0.7 WAR. For reasons of the headline and the discussion that follows, I’ll add that Matt Garza was third worst, at -0.4 WAR.
The vast majority were right in the middle, and basically neutral. That’s what you’d expect.
So, when I think about Lester’s lack of offensive prowess, and then I read discussions about Lester’s defense like the one in this Nick Cafardo piece, I’m not particularly concerned. But it’s worth the discussion, at least.
In short, Cafardo writes that Lester has “always had problems” with throwing to bases, and in the NL, he’ll have to deal with it more because there are generally quite a bit more sacrifice bunts in the NL than the AL. A scout wondered to Cafardo why teams didn’t test Lester’s throwing ability by bunting at him more frequently. The only conclusion offered is that it’s possible teams are just honoring a kind of code, not wanting to embarrass another player.
As we saw with Matt Garza, teams do appear not to want to embarrass a pitcher who cannot throw to first base, even if it would help them win. It was clear in the 2012 season, in particular, that Garza had some kind of yips situation going on (obligatory), and could not cleanly field and execute plays to him. Yet teams did not engage in overly obvious patterns of testing him.
Maybe that will continue to be the case with Lester, even if Cafardo’s take is correct, and even if NL teams know there’s an issue. But, as Cafardo correctly points out, Lester will have to field more bunts regardless. Will it be an issue? I guess we’ll see. Lester typically has only a couple errors per season, and the league leaders among pitchers are usually in the 4/5 range. Having not been an obsessive watcher of Lester like Cafardo and the scout he cites, I won’t say they’re not right, though it’s not like Lester has been hugely error prone in his career thus far.
A throwaway on a sac bunt can absolutely make the difference between a win and a loss … but that’s probably not typical. So, even if Lester throws away a few balls per year for the Cubs, it really shouldn’t be a significant issue overall. It would become a serious problem only if other teams start testing him repeatedly with bunts, and Lester demonstrates a flat-out inability to make the play at first. That seems unlikely, given the way players seem not to do that to each other (right or wrong), and given the fact that Lester is a good athlete who could probably adjust relatively quickly even if it started to become a problem.*
*(None of which is to say that there isn’t a little extra trickiness for pitchers to make defensive plays. They’re dealing with coming off of a raised surface, and the ball often reaches them much more quickly than at other positions. Most importantly, the pitching motion and the throwing-to-a-base motion are entirely different. Make 150 pitches, between warm-ups and the game, and then instantly have to shift to a base-throwing motion, and your muscle memory can betray you. I think we’re probably a little too hard on pitchers when they throw it away.)
Possibly related, and absolutely incredible: Jon Lester didn’t attempt a single pickoff throw to first base in 2014. Not a single one.
From reading that FanGraphs piece, and unsurprising given what Cafardo wrote, pickoffs are not a strength of Lester’s. So far, though, it hasn’t burned him too badly on the basepaths (runners are successful stealing against him 77% of the time, versus a 73% rate overall for the league).
All in all, it’s a side story worth following next year. But, as I said when opening this post: the pitching is what really matters. And Lester’s a stud. So that’s good.