MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester took the first step long ago, admitting he had a problem and even telling reporters he experienced the yips way back in high school.
The Cubs can’t pretend Lester’s throws to first base aren’t an issue. Joe Maddon can’t spin it away with his storytelling and sense of humor during the manager’s daily media sessions.
The Cubs are trying to attack the problem head-on, even if it meant Lester pitching on Field 1 during Tuesday morning’s controlled scrimmage against minor-league players at Sloan Park.
It left beat writers comparing notes on how many times – at least three – Lester’s pick-off throws to first base wound up near the chain-link fence. In this intimate setting, you could hear the frustration and listen to the guttural noises as he finished his pitches in front of dozens of fans.
“God damn it!” Lester screamed after one of those wild throws.
But once Lester got out of the Arizona heat and into the clubhouse, he could unwind – we’re talking about practice – and focus on the positives, like throwing out Dan Vogelbach in the second inning when he tried to take a walking lead off first base.
“I’m really a no-BS guy,” Lester said at his locker. “I’ll sit here and I’ll tell you if I have a bad start. I’ll tell you if I think I threw the ball better than what the results were. I’ve tried to always be honest with you guys – and I hope that you see that and you hear that. This is something that obviously I can’t run from. This isn’t something that you can hide.
“It’s obviously out there. Everybody knows. And it’s something that I’m continually trying to tackle every day and get better at. That’s all that I can do.”
Last week’s rough Cactus League start again exposed the mental block that got so much attention during the first year of a $155 million megadeal. Opponents stole 44 bases off Lester, who led the majors in that category while putting together a strong season overall (3.34 ERA in 32 starts, 207 strikeouts in 205 innings).
“We just got to keep working through it,” Maddon said. “At some point, you have that breakthrough moment – and the epiphany occurs – and then all of a sudden it becomes a lot easier to do those things. You don’t give up on it.
“Just like I’m talking about ‘embracing the target,’ you attack those particular items. You avoid avoidance. And I think if you avoid avoidance, then eventually it can play out.”
Whether or not the light bulb goes off, Lester is trying to manage the issue with personal catcher David Ross, a quick delivery to home plate and varying times to disrupt runners’ rhythm.
Lester made an underhand throw to first base when he fielded a ball in the third inning. He handled a bunt in the fourth inning with a one-hop throw to second base.
When the Cubs started the fifth inning with a runner on base, Lester asked for him to go back to first after a rundown, keeping it a stretch situation that would test the weakness and making it look worse from the outside.
“Hopefully, there’s something that clicks,” Lester said. “We find some type of mechanical thing that I can focus on and makes it easier for me. Right now, it seems the thing that really helps me is that step-off (move). It just makes me throw the ball.
“It’s always been a work in progress. I don’t think this is something that just arose and came up out of nowhere.”
It’s not something that prevented Lester from throwing more than 1,800 innings in The Show, making three All-Star teams and winning two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.
It’s amazing this didn’t become more of a thing in the Boston market, where so much gets magnified and overblown, though the American League is a different game that doesn’t rely as much on speed.
“This, for me, is not a matter of picking off the Billy Hamiltons,” Lester said. “This is a matter of keeping (close) the guys that should be close and limiting those attempts. The Dee Gordons, the Billy Hamiltons, those guys are going to get their bags no matter what you do. It’s a matter of limiting the guys like Anthony Rizzo who shouldn’t steal 15 bags.”
Lester knows the questions will keep coming this spring, and he expects to make his next start in an actual Cactus League game.
“Honestly, I’m not worried,” Maddon said. “If you watch him in practice, he does it well, actually. So it’s something that he’s capable of doing. And the phrase is ‘avoid avoidance.’
“I don’t want us to avoid those kind of moments, or not talk about them, or putting them off in the corner. I think that’s when it gets actually worse. If there’s an ability to overcome all this, we have to continue to be open about it.”