Make no mistake, the Cubs ace’s career is hanging in the balance, right now. After last Sunday’s MLB opener featuring the Cubs and the Cards, I commented that Lester’s reluctance to attempt a pickoff had progressed to the point where he needed to quickly prove he could still do it. It should have been an easy thing to accomplish, next time out, just toss it over once or twice, you don’t have to get the guy, just keep him honest and let everyone know that you could. The stakes were high, since a failure to complete a successful pickoff would establish the idea that in other teams and, crucially, in Lester himself, that he simply can’t make that throw. If that were to come about, there is no telling what the consequences might be.
Well, it happened. Lester attempted two pickoffs on Monday, apparently to silence the doubters, but instead that nightmare scenario came to pass. Neither was good, but in the second inning, he tossed one about 15 feet over Anthony Rizzo’s head and Jorge Soler had to chase it down (and, in a lucky break, nail the runner heading to third with a great throw). Once the yips has its hooks in an athlete, all bets are off. It’s one of the strangest phenomena in sports, and one of the hardest to understand. I can throw the ball to first base from the mound, you can throw the ball to first base from the mound, Jon Lester, who gets paid $155 million to play baseball professionally, cannot. It’s something he’s done hundreds of times before, but now his mind and body betray him. These stories usually don’t have happy endings. Usually, the guy ends up out of the game within a few years. Lester is now fighting something that most professional athletes typically lose to when it begins to affect them.
How might it affect him on the mound? To begin with, most singles will become de facto doubles. His strand rate would drop precipitously, and his only hope would be not to allow baserunners in the first place. So unless he can throw a perfecto every time, this is going to be a problem. Once baserunners start really taking advantage and advancing at will, it wouldn’t be surprising if that lack of confidence starts to affect other aspects of his performance. For now, he can still find the strike zone, but as the pressure on him mounts, is it so hard to believe that his pitching could be affected as well? Will he be able to resist giving in to hitters when he knows that any baserunner at all could be standing at third in a matter of moments? Will the Cubs even be able to run out a pitcher who is so badly compromised in big games?
Last week, in an episode of BP’s Effectively Wild podcast, Ben Lindbergh tried to figure out what it would mean for the Cubs and Jon Lester if he truly never could throw to first again. He turned to the makers of the baseball sims Out of the Park and Diamond Mind, among others, to attempt to model this scenario. Mostly they came back with results that suggested an appreciable but not catastrophic inflation in Lester’s ERA, in the range of 10-15%. Right away, that seemed overly optimistic. A sim like OOTP, of which I am an avid player, as wonderful as it is, has no real way to model the psychological carnage that’s going on inside a player’s head when he suddenly can no longer trust himself to complete a seemingly simple task, it has no way of predicting the degree to which opponents will eagerly take advantage of him and how these two things could interact in a positive feedback loop leading to some truly ugly situations. I mean, this could all be fixed by next week, but if I’m the Cubs, I’m panicking. I’m hoping that 12 months from now, Lester is still up to the task of taking the field in a major league baseball game, because there’s a not-insignificant chance that he isn’t.
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