Jon Lester's response to borderline ball/strike calls that go against him can be volcanic, in stages. It might start with a surprised double-take and a stare off toward the light towers, and then progress to a disgusted swipe at a return throw. If the home plate umpire continues to make what Lester perceives to be mistakes, the pitcher will march down the apron of the mound for a pointed glare homeward. The final outburst might be shouts of profanity over his shoulder as he stalks to the dugout at the end of the half-inning.
When catcher David Ross began to work with Lester in Boston in 2013, the Red Sox coaches thought Ross found a way to successfully guide the left-hander through the episodes of temper and prevent him from becoming preoccupied with the calls. Ross had a knack for getting Lester's focus back on what needed to happen next. That art for handling one of the best pitchers in baseball was one reason the Chicago Cubs wooed and signed Ross as they simultaneously pursued Lester before the 2015 season.
But Ross has retired, and today Willson Contreras becomes Lester's primary catcher as the Cubs open the season against the St. Louis Cardinals (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). Contreras will have a long to-do list, from pitch-calling to reading the hitters to helping Lester deal with his well-established discomfort throwing to bases. The responsibility of soothing Lester during any ball/strike issues, however, might be assumed in some circumstances by a teammate: Anthony Rizzo.
This possibility has been discussed in the Cubs organization because Rizzo has shared history with Lester, the shared success.
As Lester tackled his throwing yips the past couple years, there was a three-man conversation to look for solutions: the pitcher, Ross and Rizzo. The first baseman knows the pitcher, knows the umpires, knows the situations, and he has the stature to relieve Contreras of this relatively small but crucial task.
Contreras bears his own set of skills. He is an extraordinary athlete, hits for power, runs and has a remarkable throwing arm. The Cubs are hopeful that he’ll develop into one of the best catchers of his time. But his temperament is different from that of Ross, who tended to shape his demeanor according to the needs of his pitcher.
Lester and Ross teamed up in 102 games, including 13 in the postseason. In those 102 games, Lester had a 2.68 ERA -- about three-quarters of a run better than when Lester worked with Jason Varitek (3.41) and more than 1.5 runs lower than in Lester's games with Jarrod Saltalamacchia (4.20). Ross and Lester had a special relationship that cannot be replicated.
When Contreras was in the minors, he sometimes struggled to control his emotions and his energy, the last challenge before he was promoted to the big leagues.
During the World Series, Contreras made repeated visits to the mound to talk through situations and pitch choices with his pitchers, a habit that drew complaints from observers and broadcasters but praise from Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who was glad Contreras did what he needed to do to slow down.
But it remains to be seen how Contreras will deal with the inevitable Lester eruption over balls and strikes. Lester is almost a decade older than Contreras, and neither knows yet how the pitcher will receive in-game counsel from such an inexperienced player.
Ross handled Lester, partly, by serving as a buffer from the umpires, talking to arbiters that Ross knew well from the many days and nights shared together -- effectively convincing at least some of them that Lester’s anger wasn’t meant to be personal, but rather a reflection of his personality. Contreras doesn’t have that kind of rapport with umpires yet.
How did Ross learn to best deal with Lester, to help his pitcher through those moments of anger? "Each situation is different," Ross said. "[Contreras] will learn these moments through experience, just like I had to."
This will take time -- maybe more than Lester has. Ross was 36 years old the first time he caught Lester. Until Contreras can calm Lester -- and the pitcher might need that kind of guidance as soon as tonight -- it could be Rizzo who goes to the mound to steer the pitcher’s emotions. It could be that when Lester nicks the outside corner with a fastball and the call is a ball, pushing the count to 2-and-1 rather than 1-and-2, it’ll be Rizzo who nudges Lester back to equilibrium.
Clubhouse culture is Rangers' secret weapon
The Texas Rangers sent reliever Keone Kela to the minors, and general manager Jon Daniels said the decision was not performance-based. Rather, it’s about Kela fitting in and disrupting what the Rangers believe is a strength of the team.
“One of our competitive advantages, maybe our biggest competitive advantage, is our clubhouse culture, our atmosphere, the family that is our organization,” Daniels said, according to the Star-Telegram. “Sometimes when things happen in families, you need a little time to address them. That’s what’s happened here.
“It doesn’t change how we feel about him short, medium and long term. I have a lot of faith in him as a pitcher and a young man, and hopefully he’ll be back with us at some point going forward.”
The Rangers’ strong clubhouse culture is apparent to anyone around them. The players and staff have a strong investment in one another, from third baseman Adrian Beltre to manager Jeff Banister. During our broadcast of a Rangers exhibition against the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 23, Jurickson Profar, who had just returned from the World Baseball Classic, lost track of the outs while playing center field and allowed a runner to take a base. Immediately, Beltre began gesturing to Profar, with a motion of dropping money into a bucket, probably referencing a forthcoming donation from Profar in the team's kangaroo court. At the end of the half-inning, Beltre waited for Profar and reinforced the lesson, and so did Banister, with his arm swung paternally around Profar’s neck: Don’t do it again.
The Rangers’ culture is a weapon -- a competitive advantage, as Daniels said -- and they are among a handful of teams that could probably make that claim: The Kansas City Royals; the Cleveland Indians, fostered by Terry Francona; the San Francisco Giants; the Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten a lot better compared to a few years ago; the Miami Marlins'; and the Baltimore Orioles, unquestionably, have overcome seeming roster shortages because of the leadership of Adam Jones and others.
Will Kolten Wong start against Lester?
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will make many decisions in the months ahead, but one of his first in the 2017 season will be interesting: Will he start the left-handed hitting Kolten Wong against the left-hander Lester?
Last week, Wong generated backlash in the organization when he indicated that he might be better off with another team rather than in a platoon. The Cardinals have a natural right-handed-hitting option against Lester in Jedd Gyorko, and Wong has struggled against Lester in a small sample, with one hit in 10 at-bats.
During the winter, the Cardinals went through a makeover, upgrading their defense and athleticism. To serve that philosophy, Wong is more athletic and a better defender. But Matheny has to be wary of how his decision will be perceived. Will he give Wong an opportunity on Opening Day to begin to claim the second base job for his own? Or will he go with Gyorko, preferring the right-handed hitter, knowing this could be perceived by Wong as something of a rebuke.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: Karl Ravech and Justin Havens discuss how it would be best for Matheny to handle Wong in Sunday's game, Alex Speier of the Boston Globe on the Boston Red Sox's pitching injuries, and Aaron Boone on Yadier Molina's deal and Jason Heyward's swing.
Wednesday: Aubrey Huff details his addiction to Adderall, Orioles manager Buck Showalter on his philosophy for building lineups (and Kevin Gausman), and Jayson Stark tells a story about a classic confrontation with the late, great Dallas Green.
Tuesday: Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper and Indians broadcaster Tom Hamilton preview the upcoming season for their respective teams. Plus, Keith Law on Yadier Molina's contract.
And today will be better than yesterday.