Few, if any, of us will forget Jon Lester’s “gutsy” performance in Game Seven of the World Series. Just three days after helping win an air-tight Game Five at Wrigley Field with six solid innings, Lester threw three innings of one-run ball in the biggest game of even his postseason-studded career. Although a few miscues early in his appearance, including a wild pitch, led to a pair of runs for Cleveland, Lester successfully got the ball to closer Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning with the lead intact.
Lester didn’t do it alone, however. Entering the game with the lefty, and giving manager Joe Maddon the scoop on how Lester looked in the bullpen prior to his entrance in the fifth inning, was Lester’s batterymate, David Ross. Ross caught 578.7 of Lester’s 2,000-plus career innings by the end of 2016, and Lester’s rate stats allowed are noticeably better with Ross behind the plate.
Hitters managed just .228/.284/.354 when Lester matched up with Ross, compared to his total batting line allowed of .244/.307/.374. Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras have caught only 16 and three innings of Lester, respectively, in the past two seasons. Probably not enough from which to draw any conclusions counter to the one we already have: for Lester, the psychological benefits of throwing to Ross are apparent, and, at this point, indisputable.
Ross has passed on to the Great Broadcasting or Coaching Gig in the Sky, however, and so Lester is without his personal catcher for the first time in Chicago. 2016’s three-headed monster of Contreras, Montero, and Ross is supplanted by the two-and-a-half-ish-headed monster of Contreras, Montero, and however many innings Kyle Schwarber will see behind the plate. Contreras will take the majority of innings behind the dish of these three.
Contreras and Montero are no slouches when it comes to defense—Montero was a top-10 catcher by adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), and Contreras a top-20 receiver—so in a contextual vacuum, one would expect little change in Lester’s success. Of course, we know Lester is not immune to a host of contextual factors. DRA has never particularly liked Lester as much as Cy Young voters and more traditional metrics have, due to his pairing with above-average defensive catchers.
Knowing what we do—that his catcher makes a sizeable impact on his success—how do we determine who should catch Jon Lester in 2017?
We should begin with framing data. Although framing data’s ubiquity has withered the advantage that some teams have over others in acquiring backstops who can “steal” strikes, the Cubs already happen to have two of the best framers in baseball, and one is likely to get even better as he matures. Montero ranked fourth in framing runs in 2016, behind only Buster Posey, Yasmani Grandal, and Jason Castro, and first in Calld Strikes Above Average (CSAA). Contreras ranked 22nd, but he was slightly better than that in CSAA, with fewer chances than Montero and many others ahead of him.
Contreras put up framing stats eerily similar to Ross, actually. Both sit around 20th in framing categories, and they even handled a similar amount of framing chances on the season. Ross only nudges ahead defensively when considering the wizened catcher’s superb blocking and throwing skills.
Ross was the seventh-best catcher by Errant Pitches Above Average in 2016, which makes Lester’s World Series wild pitch even more improbable; Contreras clocked in at an impressive 13th. The Cubs’ coaching staff has gushed over Contreras’s voracious curiosity and ability to soak up information, so paired with a good work ethic and a mentor in Montero, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the young catcher were to improve in this facet of his game.
So, the Cubs’ tandem of Venezuelan receivers is pretty darn good at framing. Relative to most other pitchers, however, the impact of Lester’s partner’s framing skills is somewhat lessened. That Contreras and Montero both frame well makes the marginal value due to framing of starting one over the other fairly small. Montero has an edge, but Contreras has room to grow. What matters more when catching Lester are rapport and abating the potentially hazardous baserunning of opponents.
Mitigating the adverse effects of the running game with Lester on the mound is where Ross shined, and where he racked up some defensive highlights. With a strong arm and ruthless tendency to throw behind the runner, Ross was able to dampen runners’ desire to swipe bases against the infamously rare pickoff move of Lester. All three of the Cubs’ catchers showed poorly in the Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA) leaderboard, due to their pitching staff’s relative disinterest in holding runners to their bases. Montero and Ross were the most likely and sixth-most likely to be tested by base stealers in 2016, in part due to their usual pairings with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, respectively.
Montero, by all accounts, is poor at throwing out runners. He bounces throws and misses his mark often, confirming with the eye test his second-worst Swipe Rate Above Average. Contreras, on the other hand, is closer to Ross’s territory when it comes to holding runners. Once again, he ranked around 20th in a defensive category, this time 21st in throwing runs, a mark of his solid all-around game. Contreras’s superior throwing ability more than makes up the smaller gap in framing skill between him and Montero, making the younger catcher a better candidate to receive pitches from Lester.
Knowing that his partner can throw out runners seems important to Lester, which gives Contreras the “psychological” edge, too. Lester has almost no history with either of these catchers, aside from their locker room interactions, so he’ll be minting a fresh relationship with one in Spring Training. With all else equal, Lester might prefer an elder statesman as his batterymate. The opportunity to work out a game plan with a catcher who has received praise from his coaches and from the front office might entice Lester—Contreras is clearly ascendant with regards to his defense, and a relationship with Lester could be beneficial for both players.
Lester isn’t one to rest on his laurels. He’s going to defend the Cubs’ championship vociferously, and he’s going to do it with a new catcher behind the plate. With Willson Contreras’s sound hitting, good arm, and improving framing, he’ll have a good match for the duration of his Cubs career.
Lead photo courtesy Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports