By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (CBS) — Success has followed Cubs left-hander Jon Lester around during his career, and he has three World Series rings to prove it.
In Lester’s 11-year career, self-scrutiny has been a big part of his journey to championship-caliber pitching, which included a 3-1 record and 2.02 ERA in the playoffs last season that helped lead the Cubs to a championship. Another important part of Lester’s quality performances his partnership with good friend David Ross, his personal catcher before Ross retired this past offseason.
As a new spring training has opened, Lester and the Cubs are now adjusting to life without Ross behind the plate. On Friday, Lester was peppered with questions about the transition, with the assumption being that his success was partially tied to the tender loving care he got from Ross.
Lester will be primarily be working with 24-year-old catcher Willson Contreras now. Contreras is starting his first full season in the big leagues.
“Whoever it is, just being able to throw to him,” said Lester, who was 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA last season. “I think that is what it comes down to. Rossy and I just didn’t jump in and all of a sudden click. It took a few starts to actually work some things out. He had to get with what I wanted to do and vice-versa. I think that is what it comes down to — time on the mound, time behind the plate.
“Willson is a smart kid, and he cares. He wants to get better, and he is eager to please. So I think he has all the attributes to be a really good catcher in this league. I don’t think there will be much of a learning curve. He did such a good job with our staff last year. He did not catch any of us in spring training last year. For him to do that in the middle of the of the season was pretty impressive.”
Perhaps Contreras’ biggest task in working with Lester will be slowing opponents’ running games down. Lester has a well-documented aversion of throwing pick-offs to first base (or anywhere), and questions continue to persist about that. Lester spent extra time last spring training working on holding runners on. The improvement was mostly in his hesitating before pitching with men on base, thus throwing their timing off.
The fact that Lester’s release time is among the fastest to home plate also was crucial in helping his catchers — usually Ross — throw out 14 players attempting to steal a base, the most in baseball.
Lester is embracing the mentality of moving forward without Ross.
“This is not hard,” Lester said. “You have a game plan going into each game. You rely on that. Me and Rossy didn’t reinvent the wheel with any special. It is a matter of having a game plan. When the game plan is not going so well or you are not able to execute that plan, you must have the ability to go to plan B. That is where I think Rossy and I clicked. I saw Willson do that a lot with everyone else. I don’t think it will be any problem. He is very talented and very willing to learn. The biggest thing for me is he wants to go out there and make you happy when he is behind the plate. I threw a side to him the other day. He was asking me if he was in the right places and all of that stuff. He is ready to go. I do not think there will be any issues at all.”
If the Cubs are to repeat as champions, Contreras and the other youngsters will be counted on for continued growth.
“With this team, I think it’s different than the other two I was on,” Lester said. “This team is so young. With the all the other stuff and the 108 years, that just adds to their confidence. The other two teams (in Boston) were different. We did not have the carryover that we do this year. There were more free agents after those seasons. We lost one, two guys. That is a huge difference to the years past.
“Most of the time when you win a World Series, you have a lot of turnover. I think that puts us in a position to compete again. Our young guys are cocky enough and naive enough to just go out and not worry about anything. You definitely see everybody has come in with a little extra pep in their step. That is good to see. They will not be afraid to flip that switch and go back to work.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.