The book on Jon Lester has been written. He hates throwing to first base. Because of that, teams are more aggressive in their leads and they are much more willing to attempt steals against him. Already this season Lester has allowed 13 stolen bases, after today’s game. That is well beyond the pace of the highest of his career, which is 22.
Solving the stolen base parade against Lester does not come with any easy answers. He could get better at holding runners. That seems to be in work, as it’s been reported a few times this year that various writers and fans have seen him working on throws to first in the bullpen prior to games. Clearly, this is an important first step. Not allowing runners to lead off so aggressively will calm the running down significantly. And really, Lester doesn’t even have to pick runners off. He just needs to show a willingness to throw to first base and an ability to do so accurately. A less practical solution is to throw a perfect game every time out. Since this isn’t possible, it’s fair to move on. A third is finding someone else to throw to first (or to second on stolen base attempts).
With David Ross being entrenched as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, runners have no reason to fear. Lester isn’t holding runners on, and David Ross is not the guy who can make up for that. It is genuinely the perfect storm for runners to take extra bases. While Ross may make Jon Lester more comfortable and he may help Lester steal a few extra strikes this season, he may be costing the Cubs runs because he cannot compensate for Lester’s one true and exploitable weakness.
Fortunately for the Cubs, there exists a player on the roster who has shown some ability to throw strongly and accurately. That player is Welington Castillo. He has shown strong and accurate throws to second base, and more importantly, his strong arm has allowed him to make snap throws to first base when runners get a little too aggressive with their leads and secondary leads.
Among defensive catchers, Castillo grades out really well. He is third in defensive runs saved since 2012 (behind only Yadier Molina and Salvador Perez), and 4th in runs saved by throwing potential base stealers (Behind Russell Martin, Perez, and Molina). It is the increase in arm strength that would help the Cubs and Jon Lester here. Because Castillo’s arm is a known commodity around the National League, teams will be more cautious when sizing their leads against him. If they stray too far, Castillo is far more likely than Ross to throw down to first to chase them back. Or, pick them off. And, coupling Castillo’s ability to throw with the fact that Jon Lester is pretty quick to home, there should be enough to slow down opposing running games from the torrid start they’ve been on.
As far as knocks on Castillo go, the biggest and most aggressive has been that he is a terrible pitch framer. Being early in the season and not getting a lot of playing time to this point have done nothing to quiet those loud shouts about Cubs pitchers losing strikes to Castillo’s terrible pitch framing, but Baseball Prospectus’ advanced catching metrics say that Castillo has been pretty good thus far in his limited action. In this area, David Ross has been the best of all three Cubs’ catchers. His 15.2 extra strikes in 466 chances is just behind the 18.1 had by Miguel Montero (in 1231 chances) and well ahead of the 4.8 gained by Castillo in 459 chances. The biggest news in this area, though, is that Castillo was among the worst pitch framers in the game just last season. This season, projecting to a qualifying number of innings, Wely would be among the best. In this area, it is likely that adding Ross, Montero, and new Quality Assurance Coach, Henry Blanco has helped Castillo immensely.
Lester’s feelings are obviously important. He and David Ross obviously have a good relationship and have an understanding of each other that helps Lester when he is on the mound. The front office thought it was important enough that they brought David Ross into the organization, in spite of having acquired Miguel Montero and having Welington Castillo already on the roster. Lester has an ERA of 3.00 with Ross as his catcher, which is pretty substantially lower than anyone else who has caught him for more than 100 innings. Only Jason Varitek (546.1) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (396.1) have caught more innings from Lester than Ross (243.2). That is not to say Lester can’t be successful with other catchers. He worked 76.2 with Derek Norris after being traded to Oakland last summer, to the tune of a 2.35 ERA. Lester is a big boy with some big ability. And he has shown the ability to adjust in the past.
Line-up construction is not a strong consideration. Like Ross, Castillo is a right handed batter. He also comes with more power and ability to drive the baseball than Ross. He can fill the seventh slot in the line-up just as effectively, if not more so, than Ross. More interesting is what happens to David Ross if the Cubs do move away from having a personal catcher for Jon Lester. At 38, Ross is not a long term asset. He will not be a Cub as long as Jon Lester in any event. The Cubs could release Ross and allow him to explore other opportunities. They could keep him and use him as a bench player, although he is a pure catcher and pinch hitter. His roster spot immediately becomes more valuable than he is if he is not around to catch Lester every fifth day. Ultimately, Ross would probably have to be replaced on the roster. That consideration may make a change in Lester’s catching situation more unlikely.
Whether Lester’s stolen bases allowed are a problem or not is debatable. If he keeps runners off base and keeps hitters from making the kind of contact necessary to drive hitters in who do reach, the answer is no. The stolen bases and lack of holding runners is a non-story. But every single can’t be allowed to be a double or a triple for particularly annoying and fast runners, like Billy Hamilton. In this instance, it may be worth exploring the idea of making a change behind the plate for Jon Lester’s starts. The Cubs have an in-house resource who can be more effective than the current catcher. And while Castillo doesn’t do one thing (pitch framing) as well as Ross, he has shown the ability to improve that aspect of his game while exceeding Ross in virtually all others.
Over the last 5 starts, Lester has been pretty good and is looking more and more like the ace the Cubs signed. But if the Cubs have any designs on reaching the playoffs, and if they make the playoffs, they need to win the games Lester starts. And if they do make the playoffs, runs will be at a premium. In his 2014 Wild Card start, the Royals stole 3 bases while Lester was pitching. While those stolen bases did not cost the A’s that game, they didn’t help. And in a one and done game like the Wild Card, every run is critical. Anything the Cubs can do to prevent that should be explored. Welington Castillo is a good option. He’s proven to be a reliable defensive catcher with a good arm…and he’s already on the roster.