THE BOSTON GLOBE
NICK CAFARDO Globe Staff April 12, 2015
Will NL exploit Jon Lester’s throwing yips?
Now the stories read that there is no problem with Jon Lester throwing to first or the other bases.
The 66 games in which he hasn’t thrown to first to check on a runner was just one of those things.
While the problem of Lester not throwing to bases has been there for a few years, according to a Red Sox source, it was highlighted on national TV in his Cubs debut against the Cardinals. St. Louis stole four bases, including three against Lester, who never once threw over to first.
Fact is, the Red Sox spent a lot of time on the back fields in spring training trying to help Lester with his throwing to bases. They are amazed that teams rarely tested him (though the Royals did just that in last season’s wild-card game, stealing three bases off him). So yes, the problem is real.
But Lester, who spent the week downplaying it, says it’s a non-issue.
He has lucked out in the past since American League teams appeared to be asleep at the wheel, even though some of their advance scouts pointed out that Lester has trouble throwing to bases.
Nobody wants to admit this is happening to them.
And maybe Lester goes out and proves to those who might want to test him that he’s fine.
All three teams that pursued Lester in free agency until the end were aware of his throwing problems. Obviously the Cubs were because Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod were all in Boston. The Giants offered Lester $155 million over six years because, as general manager Bobby Evans said, “I’m not sure you know the severity until he’s under your own roof. We have had guys with the yips. Have had guys that are unique in how they throw to first base on comebackers.”
Lester had a great year in 2013, leading the Red Sox to a World Series win. But after he threw to first base against Toronto on April 30 of that year, he never has again.
What were opposing teams thinking not trying to exploit his throwing difficulties?
“I always included in my reports about the throwing, but our team chose not to do anything about it,” said one American League advance scout.
Lester is certainly not the first pitcher to have this problem. Matt Young, another former Sox lefthander, had to roll balls to first base. The Brewers’ Matt Garza has a similar problem.
We saw “Steve Blass disease” with Daniel Bard, who struggled mightily with his control. While Bard pitched well at the beginning of Cubs camp this spring, his troubles have returned.
Steve Sax had a well-known case of the yips. The former Dodgers second baseman, who now works for MLB Network radio, said it came as a result of one event.
Sax remembers a sequence against the Expos when a runner held up at third, but Sax fired the ball into catcher Mike Scioscia. The ball one-hopped off Scioscia’s shin guard and the run scored.
Sax said he thought about that error all the time, and soon it was in his head. He made 30 errors by August, and his throws were so off the mark that people sitting in the first base stands occasionally wore helmets.
San Francisco-based psychologist Richard Crowley, who works with amateur and professional players on their throwing problems, said, “I don’t give anyone advice. The player has enough going through his mind when this happens. I just solve the problem with the methods I’ve discovered, which have worked. I deal with the right side of the brain, the unconscious. That’s where the problem stems from. Once I find out what image in the unconscious triggers the event, I deal with it. It doesn’t take that long to cure someone of it.”
Crowley, who has Boston roots, believes “if the player hasn’t been cured, it’s probably not the player’s fault. It’s usually that the person he’s working with hasn’t come up with a way to cure him.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is rightfully downplaying Lester’s difficulties.
“I think it’s being a little overplayed right now, quite frankly,” Maddon said. “It’s something that will get better. His work is very diligent, and I’d much prefer he worries more about getting his fastball where he wants and his cutter where he wants and all the normal pitching things. I’d prefer that would be his priority over the other thing. I don’t want to make this an issue, because it’s not for me at all.”
But it is an issue. The Cardinals took advantage in Lester’s first start. Nobody wants it to become a bigger issue.
Will teams bunt more on Lester and make him make a play? Will runners on first steal or dance around to draw a throw? Maybe Lester will pass every test.
A problem of this type can ruin a career, more so throwing to batters like Bard, because if you can’t throw to the plate, throwing to bases becomes moot. It ended Rick Ankiel’s pitching career, and he had great promise. He became a good hitter and outfielder, but he had a live pitching arm that went haywire in the 2000 playoffs.
Blass went from being second in the voting for World Series MVP in 1971, to two years later having no idea where his pitches were going. Former Braves closer Mark Wohlers also suffered from the yips.
There was Chuck Knoblauch, who went from being a Gold Glover in 1997 to throwing balls into the stands in 1998, and Mackey Sasser, who was unable to throw to the pitcher, a problem Jarrod Saltalamacchia had before being cured.
Who knows what happens from here? Maybe National League teams will do what AL teams did — nothing — and Lester will settle in as he always has.