MESA, Ariz. – Of the areas Jon Lester would seem to have room to improve heading into the Cubs’ 2016 season, could his hitting be the one that actually takes the most significant step forward?
“I thought people made fun of Jon a lot last year, but I really liked Jon’s swing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And by the end of the season it started to pay dividends.”
In his final spring start before a scheduled season debut Tuesday in Anaheim, Lester pitched five scoreless innings against the Colorado Rockies, with 10 strikeouts. He had no fielding chances, and throwing to bases was not an issue.
But it was his opposite-field home run during the Cubs’ seven-run fourth inning that created the most postgame buzz around the big left-hander.
Granted, the homer came against some guy named Scott Oberg, and nobody was turning it into any kind of jumping-off point for regular-season projections.
But despite a major-league record 66 hitless at-bats before getting his first hit last July, Lester hitting the ball hard is no fluke. He recorded the second-highest exit velocity for a pitcher last season.
“I feel like I’m ahead of the curve a little bit as far as where I was last year, just pitcking up the bat,” said Lester, who has trash-talked and made hitting bets for ’16 with new Cubs teammate John Lackey – the guy he got the hit against last July (a shot that caromed off Lackey for an infield single).
“That [home run] was obviously a cool thing and something I guess I can put on the mantle. But hopefully we can get one during the season. That would mean a lot more.”
For context on Maddon’s observation and Lester’s growing comfort, consider that until he joined the Cubs last year, the career American Leaguer had 36 career big-league at-bats. He had none in the minors.
Before Wednesday, he was 0-for-5 in his career at the plate in spring trainings.
As for those 36 previous regular-season at-bats, Lester said he and the other Red Sox pitchers were not allowed to swing the bat in those interleague road games.
“I had one game against [Philadelphia’s] Cliff Lee, and [manager] John Farrell told me if I took the bat off my shoulder he’d fine me,” Lester said. “Literally, I told the catcher, `I’m not allowed to swing, so if you just want to throw heaters down the middle, go for it.’ And they did.
“I punched out twice looking. Six pitches. And drug it back to the dugout.”
His last homer at any level before Wednesday? High school. Had to be.
“That’s the only time I’ve gotten a hit [before last season],” said Lester, who had fun with teammates after the homer Wednesday, pointing to the sky as he reached the dugout.
He’s not taking any more batting practice than usual this spring, he said. But there does seem to be a growing confidence.
“It’s just more of a comfort,” he said. “You’re coming in [last year] and trying to figure out how far from the plate you’re supposed to stand and how you’re supposed to load and how you’re supposed to swing and all this other stuff.”
He won’t get a chance to test that new comfort level until his second start, with the DH in effect Tuesday.
But by the home opener April 11 against the Reds at Wrigley Field, he’ll be ready to swing.
“As the year went on last year, I know the results weren’t there the whole year as far as hits,” he said. “But as the year went on, I felt a lot more comfortable, and more at ease when I was up at the plate.”
Since the 0-for-66, he went 4-for-32 – big improvement, if not Big Z-esque.
“Now we’re coming in and it’s not as new and foreign,” he said. “This year I’ll have a lot better idea what I’m trying to do.”