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Mind over matter: Cubs starter Jon Lester’s secret to getting better with age

ARLINGTON, Texas — The older he gets and the more the game changes around him, the more Cubs pitcher Jon Lester might sound like a crabby, get-off-my-lawn baseball geezer.

But behind that ever-stern veneer and from the inside of those game-day ear buds, a different story emerges about what makes the 35-year-old left-hander tick — and maybe even what makes him better in his 30s than he was in his 20s.

“The reason why I’m kind of line-in-the-sand with it,” he said of his criticism of spin rates and new-age stats such as xFIP, “is because we have all this information but we don’t know what to do with it.”

At least not fully, not quite yet, he said.

“That’s why I’m still kind of — not skeptical of it,” he said. “I think it’s good. I think baseball’s evolving. But I’m still going to take a guy that will compete and wants to win and isn’t going to give up over the guy that has a higher spin rate and is scared to pitch with a guy at second and third.”

Lester’s bigger point is that he knows himself better than anyone else, and better than anybody’s computer or Ivy League metric.

Which brings it back to those ear buds and the quiet place he’ll try to find Thursday in the visitors’ clubhouse in Texas a couple of hours before his Opening Day start against the Rangers.

“It’s a personal thing in how you get ready for a game,” Lester said. “I like to be calm and collected leading up to a start because I know I’ll lose my mind when I pitch.”

It’s no accident that Lester’s name is on the first page of Chapter One in mental-skills coach Bob Tewksbury’s 2018 book about the ex-pitcher’s career and subsequent teaching methods.

Lester might be the greatest success story of Tewksbury’s second baseball career, going back to a July afternoon in Oakland in 2013 when both were with the Red Sox and Lester was going through the longest extended slump of his career.

Tewksbury, hired last winter as the Cubs’ mental-skills coordinator, introduced Lester to “mental imagery” and backed it up with another brief session before his start the next night.

Lester pitched well in that final start before the All-Star break, and by the time he returned from the break, he was all in. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.

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There’s nothing old-school about working with a sports psychologist, which Lester also did with Ken Ravizza, who was a pioneer in the field who died last summer.

“Joe [Maddon] hit the nail on the head when he brought Ken over [in 2015],” Lester said. “Just 20 or 30 years ago, if you talked to one of these guys, you were considered weak; you were considered sick.

“I feel like these guys have come a long ways.”

Lester’s pre-start routine begins with a series of cards, each with a grid of randomly arranged numbers from 00 to 99. A recorded program on his iPhone instructs him to find numbers in different sequences for each card in timed intervals. He compares it to a Sudoku puzzle as a brain exercise.

He then has 30-45 minutes of visualization in a trainer’s room, the “quiet room” off the clubhouse at home, or “just curl up and lay on the floor or whatever.”

The results have been startling.

Lester, who was 29 then, was 97-56 (.642) with a career 3.84 ERA through that start in Oakland with 8.1 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine innings.

Since then, as he has aged into his mid-30s: 84-44 (.656) with a 3.09 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine.

“I think it definitely helped,” Lester said. “I still do the same program he built for me after that start. It’s not a superstition.

“Does that give you confidence? Maybe. I just know that I’ve done everything I can leading up to that night to be ready for this game.