SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Three years later, pitcher Jon Lester still can’t throw to first base.
Not by any typical baseball definition anyway.
Maybe that’s why Lester and new third-base/infield coach Brian Butterfield have abandoned baseball thinking altogether and have taken an NBA approach to the fielding problem that has dogged Lester since high school.
“We’re working on the Jordan to Pippen bounce pass,” Lester said of a daily practice regimen that includes first baseman Anthony
Rizzo. “In [Butterfield’s] words, ‘Just eliminate all tension and bounce it over there.’ We’ve been working on it early in the morning.”
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Apparently, nobody told Efren Navarro, who was playing first base Sunday against the Diamondbacks when Lester bobbled a sharp comebacker and then threw a two-hopper wide of Navarro for a two-base error (which was inexplicably scored a hit and an error).
“The kid over there had no chance. He had no idea what we’ve been working on,” Lester said.
How the play might have gone with Rizzo at first is as uncertain as how the continued throwing challenges might impact another season of lofty expectations.
But two things are certain:
First, the issue isn’t going away.
And second, Lester isn’t backing down.
“I’ve never run from it,” the four-time All-Star said. “I feel like for the most part I’ve been up front about everything. I feel like I’ve worked my butt off to get better at things. I’ve tried to speed up my delivery, hold [the ball], vary [times to the plate], whatever it is.
“Obviously, from the outside looking in, it’s kind of like, ‘Why can’t you do that.’ Like I’ve said many times before, if I knew why, it obviously wouldn’t be an issue.”
That he’s on a back field every morning with his coach and first baseman in his 13th spring in the big leagues suggests at least an
impressive approach and maybe even a little optimism.
His work in three seasons with the Cubs already has delivered progress in handling baserunners, giving cannon-armed catcher Willson Contreras a better chance to make runners pay for big leads or stolen base attempts.
He already had started bouncing the ball to Rizzo on his own last season to cut down on the chance of an overthrow.
“The big thing with Butter is he’s trying to make that next step for me [on balls hit toward the mound],” Lester said, “where I don’t have to rely on [third baseman Kris Bryant] to run in from 30 feet or Willy to make an unbelievable play.”
When it comes to baserunners, Lester has gone from allowing a major-league high 44 steals in 2015, his first season with the Cubs, to 28 in 2016 to 19 last year, his first with Contreras as his regular catcher.
The attempts have gone from 55 to 41 to 31 in that span.
Despite a flaw in his game that dates to his youth, it was rarely an issue before leaving the American League to sign with the Cubs.
Manager Joe Maddon said he’s confident it won’t be problem this year, especially with a full season of experience working with Contreras.
“I like what we’re doing,” Maddon said of controlling the running game. “The biggest thing I want from Jon is not to worry about first base but to worry about home plate.”
If Lester, who said he welcomes hitters trying to bunt at him, can improve by even small degrees, he has plenty of help in the field and on the bases, between Contreras’ arm, Rizzo’s Gold Glove fielding at first and Javy Baez’s renowned quick tags at second.
“We’ll continue to work on it,” Lester said.
Even if they have to think outside the box — or outside the sport.
“I don’t care what it looks like,” he said. “I don’t care if it bounces 72 times over there; an out’s an out.”
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