Why Can't Jon Lester and DeAndre Jordan Do Their Jobs?
Issue   |   Tue, 04/28/2015 - 23:48

On April 13, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester tried unsuccessfully to pick a Cincinnati runner off first base. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But Lester had not attempted a pickoff in almost two years, a span that included 66 starts for the lefty. His last pickoff attempt, on April 30, 2013, came directly before he gave up a home run.

The home run, maybe caused by a loss of focus due to the pickoff attempt, was apparently the last straw for Lester, whose pickoff attempts had been getting more and more feeble for a while. When Lester’s opponents became aware of his aversion to throwing over, they took advantage. Kansas City stole three bases on him in their victory over Lester and Oakland in last year’s American League wild card game.

Later in the Cincinnati game, Lester tried again, this time sailing his throw over first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s head. Fortunately for him, the runner, Zach Cozart, was thrown out at third. Still, the knowledge of Lester’s pickoff struggles adds a bit of suspense to the game every time a runner reaches first against him. How big a lead will the runner take? At what point does a lead become so ridiculously large that Lester has no choice to throw over? And, if he does, will the ball go flying over the first baseman’s head? Are all of these thoughts going through Lester’s head as well?

Meanwhile, in the NBA, the hack-a-Shaq strategy is making headlines. In the first round of the playoffs, several big men, including DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers and Dwight Howard of the Rockets, have been repeatedly fouled intentionally by their opponents in an attempt to take advantage of their poor foul shooting.

On paper, the strategy makes sense: Jordan is about a 40 percent foul shooter, and Howard hovers around 50 percent.This means that Jordan scores about .8 points every time he goes to the line, and Howard about 1 point. NBA offenses score about 1 point per possession, and good offensive teams, like the Clippers and Rockets, do a little better than that. This makes fouling Jordan and Howard a good move, at least in theory.

In reality, however, there are other factors to consider. First of all, teams have a chance to rebound the misses of their poor foul shooters. Also, defensive rebounds from foul shots rarely produce good transition opportunities, which are the easiest way for a team to score points. One more strategic consideration: Hack-a-Shaq stops the clock and extends the game, so it is almost always a good strategy to employ when you are losing to a team with a bad foul shooter on the floor. In the Clippers’ Game 4 victory, Los Angeles had a lead in the fourth quarter, and coach Doc Rivers took Jordan out in the to prevent the Spurs from sending him to the line.

The last two effects are hard to quantify, but we can take a stab at answering how offensive rebounds change the question of when it is a good idea to foul.

According to 82games.com, missed free throws result in an offensive rebound about 14 percent of the time. If we assume a 50 percent foul shooter, on a team that scores about 1 point per possession, then the team gets an extra possession 7 percent of the time the other team uses the hack-a-Shaq strategy. Adding the points they score on those possessions to the average of 1 point per two free throws, the team scores 1.07 points per hack-a-Shaq possession.

So fouling a 50 percent foul shooter on an average team might not technically be a good strategy. However, just like Lester’s pickoff yips, hack-a-Shaq is about more than the ability of a player to make a certain play. It’s about a team pushing the limits of the game to exploit one of their opponents’ weaknesses. A fourth-quarter victim of hack-a-Shaq knows that his free throws are deciding the game, and he also knows that he is remarkably bad at free throw shooting. The combination of those two facts has to take a psychological toll.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver says that he is “on the fence” about changing NBA rules so that the hack-a-Shaq strategy is not possible. Currently, the rule is that if you foul a player who doesn’t have the ball in the last two minutes, the fouled player shoots two free throws and his team gets the ball.

In theory, this rule could be extended to the entire game, although this would assess unnecessarily harsh penalties to unintentional fouls away from the ball. Another possible solution, suggested by Rob Mahoney and Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, would be to allow the team whose player was fouled off the ball to decline the free throws.

Personally, I hope they don’t change the rule. There is something fascinating about watching a professional athlete struggle to make a play that high school kids can make without trouble.

Jon Lester literally throws a baseball for a living and DeAndre Jordan literally puts a basketball in a hoop for a living, but in certain contexts they seem to completely lose the ability to do those things. Also, whatever strategies opponents develop to take advantage of these deficiencies make the game more interesting.

Baseball is probably the sport with the greatest number of little strategic quirks like this. Beyond Lester’s problem, National League managers have a lot more to do than American League managers, because the National League doesn’t have a designated hitter. National League managers have to consider how to best take advantage of the fact that one of their opponents’ nine batters is mostly incompetent and how to minimize the impact of the same problem on their own offenses.

Then there is the reverse case: A batter forced to pitch. This only happens in excessively long extra-inning games, in which all the available pitchers for one team have been used, but it is unfailingly entertaining.

Of course, sometimes the manipulation of the rules to take advantage of a player’s weakness makes the game boring or the outcome feel silly.

In a recent interview with ESPN.com, commissioner Silver said he worries that “when I watch some of these games on television, frankly, it’s not great entertainment for our fans.”

And what does it really say about the actual ability of baseball teams if a certain team wins a 19-inning game because it has an outfielder who happens to be a better pitcher than the best-pitching outfielder on the other team?

Still, I always enjoy the quirks of the rules and the minor mental breakdowns that combine to create these slightly absurd situations, both because it’s fun to see professional athletes outside of their comfort zones, and because they add a bit of strategy to these games.