Jon Lester doesn’t want anybody to know his secret.
“I’d rather lay under the radar on it,” he said.
But it’s too late.
As Lester takes the mound for his start Thursday against the Rockies, the real story can finally be told about his long-standing yips when throwing to bases and holding runners.
In the ultimate baseball irony, his yips issue might be more in opponents’ heads than his.
“You can tell,” Lester said.
Just ask Tommy Pham, who ventured 20 feet off first base in the fifth inning of a one-run game Saturday and got picked off on an easy throw to first by Lester.
“He hasn’t made a successful pick in who knows how long,” a shocked Pham said after Lester’s 5-3 win during a sweep of the Cardinals.
Lester’s first pickoff in two years might have looked like an aberration. But he has become anything but easy to exploit the last few years.
Part of that is a 1.1-second time to the plate that’s among the best in baseball. Another part is catcher Willson Contreras, who has one of the best arms in the league.
And no small part is a perception that might have planted a misleading seed in opponents’ minds.
“I know the Dodgers made a big deal about it because they talked about it so much,” Lester said. “It was almost in their head more so than in ours.
“They were out there, but instead of going toward second base with their secondary [leads], they were going back to first because they were worried about getting back-picked [by Contreras]. They were almost doing us a favor by, yeah, you’re out that far, but your momentum’s going back, so you’re giving our infield an opportunity to turn the double play.”
Lester’s base-throwing trouble goes back to high school. It’s part of how he wound up with David Ross as a personal catcher over a four-year stretch for the Red Sox and Cubs.
But since getting to the National League, Lester has been especially expert at varying his hold times in the stretch, his leg kicks and his pitches, and mixing in slide steps.
“When we first got him, there were all these numbers out there about him being run against and that he can’t throw to first and all that crap,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Well, let’s emphasize what he does well. His strengths are that he can be quick to the plate.”
Said Lester: “You can’t be long to the plate if you can’t do another thing. If you’re not good at doing one thing, you’ve got to work on being better at another.”
It’s something he developed to an elite level during his years with Ross.
The transition to Contreras this year has been seamless. And their continued progress in that area could be an important, if under-the-radar, part of the team’s success.
Contreras is fourth in the majors in throwing out attempted base-stealers (nine), and no catcher has more than his eight pickoffs the last two seasons.
He takes the Lester issue personally.
“I feel like other teams try to show up Lester because he ‘cannot’ throw to first base,” Contreras said, making air quotes with his fingers. “That’s one thing that offends me because I’m a catcher, and he’s my pitcher. If they want to show up Lester, they better make sure they get to second base or they get back safe to first. Because if they’re going to show up Lester, and he has a good time to home plate, and I make a good throw to first or second, I will show them up.”
When the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson crouched in a starting-blocks stance while leading off against Lester in a game in April, Contreras fumed.
“That pissed me off,” he said. “I was hoping that he went to second base to see what happens.”
Contreras didn’t get his chance that game. And since everyone saw Lester throw out Pham, he might not get a lot more against anybody.
“Now we got a ball over there,” Lester said. “Maybe we’ll get another ball over there the next start, and then we’ll completely shut it down.”
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