By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Most of what Cubs catcher Willson Contreras does isn’t hard to see, like that 414-foot game-tying home run against the Cardinals on Sunday night. He’s a compelling athlete with the ability to play multiple positions, and his .845 OPS in 2016 showed the 24-year-old was more than ready for his full-time job as the primary catcher for the defending champions.
A critical challenge for him remains, however, and it’s more subtle and potentially elusive than anything else. That’s learning how to optimize left-hander Jon Lester.
David Ross made a personal cottage industry out of it for years, figuring ways to supplement Lester’s strange deficiencies in defense and managing baserunners. He can’t throw to a base without risking disaster, so it’s incumbent on the catcher to help keep opponents close. Lester also prefers to pound the lower half of the strike zone with all of his pitches, making framing critical to make some balls appear to be strikes in the minds of umpires.
These are advanced skills that can take time to develop, but Contreras will need them every fifth day. The opener saw Lester grind through 102 pitches in just five innings, allowing seven hits and two walks but just one earned run. Fighting this kind of high maintenance and low efficiency will be a season-long project for the two, working to establish the rhythm Lester requires to succeed.
It starts with pitch-calling and progresses through set-up, receiving and framing. The need to hold runners or make snap throws complicates the timing, as umpires sometimes need longer looks to be sufficiently sold on a strike. Ross had finely honed the instincts for knowing what was right at any given moment, but that skill can’t just be copied and uploaded to his replacement, nor passed along in mere conversation. It will be only live-game experience, trial and error.
This is a big job for a young kid, one that could test the patience of a veteran pitcher as the relationship evolves. It also matters competitively both right away and well into the fall.
A more efficient, streamlined, well-maintained Lester over six months will better serve the Cubs than one who has thrown too many unnecessary pitches or has had to escape avoidable jams and logged high-stress innings.
The same applies to working with all the Cubs’ starters, but the special case of the quirky 33-year-old Lester will be in most specific focus as the season rolls on, with Contreras having to grow into the run-prevention responsibilities that Lester just can’t handle.