Jon Lester’s new security blanket puts Cub pitcher’s yips, base runners to sleep
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MESA, Ariz. — Is this the year everybody finally stops writing about Jon Lester’s inability to hold runners and teams using the running game against him?
Probably not (see first sentence).
But it might be the year teams finally recognize that even without personal catcher/pacifier David Ross behind the plate, Lester’s Achilles’ heel can’t be exploited the way it used to be.
Willson Contreras, who took the Lester reins when Ross retired after the 2016 World Series, might provide even more cover for Lester than Ross if his first year with Lester was any indication.
“This spring training is much easier,” Lester said earlier in camp. “I would imagine especially for Willy, as well. Nobody’s making a big deal about who he’s catching, that David Ross isn’t here, yada, yada, all that other stuff.
“As far as working with him and the way he goes about it, I love everything he does back there.”
Contereras made the transition from Ross work from the start by heeding Ross’ advice to work with first baseman Anthony Rizzo on pickoff signs and learn Lester’s tendencies.
He helped nab 12 of the 31 runners who tried to steal against Lester last year. He also tied for the major-league lead in catcher pickoffs with six. (He and Ross combined for nine catcher pickoffs, ranking 1-2 the year before in fewer than 60 games each.)
The 31 runners were down from 41 in 2016 and 55 in 2015, Lester’s first season in the National League — when he surrendered a major-league-high 44 steals.
“Jon had the security blanket in Rossy. They had a great relationship,” said general manager Jed Hoyer, who signed Ross to a two-year contract at Lester’s request when Lester agreed to his six-year, $155 million deal before the 2015 season.
“I think last year was definitely the year [Lester] had some trepidation going into spring training, with a new catcher, a young catcher. I thought it went great.”
Contreras took command working with Lester from early in the season, including what he described as a stern conversation on the mound one June afternoon at Wrigley Field when the Cardinals’ Tommy Pham was dancing close to 20 feet off first between pitches.
“I went out there and said, ‘Hey, [expletive], throw the ball to first,’ ” Contreras told a ballroom of young fans during Cubs Convention in January. “And then he threw to first, and he got him out.”
Lester remembers the pickoff heard ’round the league. He disputed the exact language but didn’t dispute Contreras’ general demeanor.
“He’s not afraid,” Lester said. “As a young guy, he calls people out when he needs to. He’s obviously not scared to get in an umpire’s face, which I think is great.”
The Cubs are trying to get Contreras to tone down that last part.
But with three years left on Lester’s contract, the Cubs apparently have more than survived the first threat of adversity with Lester, who will make his third opening-day start for them March 29 against the Marlins.
“The bond he had with Rossy is going to be very hard to replicate no matter how long [Lester and Contreras] play together,” Hoyer said, “but we were really happy with the way they transitioned.”
Now maybe all those questions and media stories about Lester’s problems holding runners can finally be put to rest.
“I’m excited just to do away with all the hoopla and all the nonsense,” Lester said. “And now we can just get to work and play.”
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