MESA, Ariz. – Teammates have joked with Jon Lester about it for years. Lester even made fun of himself in a tweet in December.
But the big left-hander’s problems throwing to bases could be one of the more serious storylines of the spring for the Cubs in the wake of personal catcher David Ross’ retirement as Lester transitions to young catcher Willson Contreras.
“I’ve been open with it since Day 1. It’s nothing to hide from,” Lester said Friday. “You guys aren’t around us in the clubhouse very often, but it’s there. It is what it is. I’ll keep worrying about throwing it 60 feet, six inches. I don’t really know what to say about it; I keep going back to it is what it is.”
For all but 2 ½ months over the last four years, Ross has been a big part about making “it” as close to a non-issue as possible – his back picks, disguised pitchouts and in-game adjustments becoming a significant part of covering Lester’s “yips” to contain opponents’ running games, especially the last two years in the National League.
An even more significant part: the quality of Lester’s pitching, which had tended to keep hitters from reaching base in the first place.
An All-Star and Cy Young finalist last year, Lester was a postseason workhorse for the Cubs in their drive to their first title in 108 years, earning a baseball writers award in New York for postseason MVP (after a 3-1, 2.02 performance in five starts and a Game 7 World Series relief appearance).
If pitching is the most important factor in the Cubs’ ability to repeat in 2017, Lester might be the most important part of that.
And in a camp with few questions to answer before the opener, Lester’s adjustment to a new catcher – and Contreras’ ability to handle the extra-curricular duties associated with that – might, in turn, be the most important storyline, at least early.
“I’m pretty sure I can do that. I have confidence in myself, and I know what I want to do,” said Contreras, who said he watched closely how Lester and Ross worked last season. “The big thing is I’ve got to get to know that guy over there [Lester]. He’s been great for the last three, four years, so we’ve got to keep doing that.”
Manager Joe Maddon said he expects Contreras, the starter this year, to catch most, if not all, of Lester’s starts.
Contreras caught Lester once as a rookie last season, on July 9, a game in which Lester lasted just three innings and Contreras threw a ball down the left field line trying to pick a runner off third during a three-run second inning in Pittsburgh.
With Ross as his catcher, Lester has been an All-Star twice and won two World Series with two franchises.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” Lester said. “Watching Willie last year, he did a hell of a job doing that himself when he caught those other guys, controlling the running game and throwing guys out, back-picking and all that stuff.
“All it is, is communication, and he’s willing to sit down and talk and listen. And we’ll make adjustments as we go. We’ve got to get out there together and compete, and we’ll figure it out from there.”
Helping the process is the presence in camp of Ross, who joined the front office as a special assistant after retirement. Contreras already has had his first sit-down with Ross in camp to go over the differences with Lester.
“We’re going to have David mentor him a little bit, regarding the thought, the process, the conversations he’s had with Jonny in the past and continue to move it forward from there,” said Maddon, who suggested the club put most of the issue behind it last year by concentrating less on the base throws and more on pitching.
“The big thing is Jon is so good at throwing the ball from the rubber to the plate, I don’t want to have anything get in the way of that,” Maddon said. “Willie’s got probably a little more arm than David has physically. I believe that the other team realizing that Willson’s behind the plate, the thought process will be very similar to with David behind the plate. So I don’t perceive an edge for the other side on that flip-flop.
“The biggest thing for me there is just the person,” he added. “David’s knowledge and experience working with Jon. That’s going to be the part to me that we have to be aware of. When it comes to controlling the running game and all that stuff, I feel pretty good about it.”
Lester pointed out that he had an adjustment to make with Ross, too, when they first paired up as Red Sox teammates.
“Rossy and I just didn’t jump in and all of a sudden click. It took a few starts for us to kind of hammer some things out,” Lester said. “That’s all it really comes down to, is just pitching, time on the mound, time behind the plate.
“Willson’s a smart kid, and he cares and he wants to get better, and he’s eager to please. I think he has all the attributes to be a really good catcher in this league for a long time. And I don’t think there’s going to be much of a learning curve.”