Jon Lester’s baseball life is an epic story, as if it were an amalgamation of several baseball lives. He overcame a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a mental block on throwing to bases. He pitched in decisive World Series games for the Cubs and Red Sox. He won 200 games and won $ 199 million.
But ask Theo Epstein about his favorite Jon Lester story and your mind wanders to a little moment, away from the glamor and glory that the Tacoma kid won but never flaunted. Epstein, as an office assistant, and Lester, as a second-round pick, joined the Red Sox three months apart in 2002. They reunited after the 2014 season when Epstein convinced Lester to sign as a free agent with him. last place. Cubs rather than the Giants or Red Sox, teams that had won four of the previous five World Series.
“The Jon Lester moment that I keep remembering is when 18-year-old Anthony Rizzo came to Fenway just before he started his cancer treatments in 2008,” says Epstein. Lester, himself only 24, had beaten cancer the year before and was in the early days of his first great season as a major league player.
“Jon came to [manager Terry Francona]and I spent half an hour reassuring and encouraging Rizzo in a way Tito and I never could. It had a huge impact on Anthony, and it was the first time I saw Jon’s caring, caring and generous side that became such a central part of his clubhouse role and behind-the-scenes personality. “
Lester pitched 16 seasons in the majors, the last two marked by COVID-19 protocols and a decline in what had been his solid material. The routine of those seasons convinced Lester that he no longer wanted to pitch, so he announced that he was retiring.
There are many ways to describe Lester. He pitched with near-perfect mechanics. He is one of only nine left-handers to make 31 or more starts 12 times. He has the fourth-best winning percentage (.631) of any southpaw who has won at least 200 games, behind only Whitey Ford, Lefty Grove and Randy Johnson.
He was a great games pitcher who in seven decisive postseason games posted a 2.66 ERA. Out of sheer determination, which is how he did almost everything, Lester went from a historically terrible hitter to a pretty good one. He had one of the best gaming faces on the mound, chin resting on his glove hand as he searched for the next cue, like a Las Vegas shark giving away nothing but supreme confidence. In that way, and in many important moments, he was like his pitching doppelgänger, Andy Pettitte. Both are on the brink of the Hall of Fame.
But the best way to describe Lester is not with a number. It is like a great companion. In the confines of a baseball clubhouse, which over a long season takes on the strain and pressure of a six-month submarine deployment, there is no greater compliment than that. Lester won. I wanted the ball. He prepared himself physically and mentally with intensity. Not only did the teammates notice Lester’s form, they copied it as well.
If you want to tell the story of the most significant sports championship of our lives, which is the history of the 2016 Chicago Cubs, a good place to start is November 18, 2014. As detailed in The way of the puppies, that’s when Epstein sold Lester by signing with the Cubs in their “drafting room,” a wood-paneled room in the Cubs’ offices filled with memorabilia, photographs, and a scale model of what Wrigley Field would look like. after a four year renewal. draft. Just two weeks earlier, Epstein sent a “recruiting package” to Lester’s home, which included Cubs camouflage gear (due to Lester’s love of hunting), wine (another passion), and a cleverly produced video showing to Lester, through CGI magic, beating the Yankees to secure a World Series championship for the Cubs.
Although the Giants’ Buster Posey and Brian Sabean and Red Sox owner John Henry would ring the bell in Georgia to try to convince him to sign with their team, Lester chose the Cubs from last place. A year earlier, Epstein had tried to sign Masahiro Tanaka. When Tanaka signed with the Yankees, Epstein put the money in his pocket for Lester. If Lester had said no, Epstein would have kept the money hidden for another season and the Cubs’ promotion would have been postponed for another year. Lester powered a franchise that had finished last three years in a row. Chicago gave Lester a six-year, $ 155 million deal, which to some seemed risky given that he would pitch next season at age 31.
But Epstein knew from his Red Sox days that Lester had one of the most structurally solid shoulders an MRI has ever revealed. He knew the clean mechanics of Lester. I knew about their work ethic.
“We think that no one has perfect mechanics,” Epstein told me, “but according to the model we maintain when we send launchers to biomechanical labs, their mechanics rate [is] Higher than any we’ve ever seen Does that completely mitigate the risks? No, but it helps. And it helps to know that you’ve been on a cutting edge shoulder. [conditioning] program from 18 years; It helps to know your family and workload and what motivates you. All of that helps. They are small factors to mitigate risk. He has a tremendous pitcher’s body with ideal mechanics, he wasn’t abused as an amateur pitcher who grew up in cold climates, and he has a very strong, undamaged shoulder. “
Over the next six years, Lester gave the Cubs more than 1,000 innings and 77 wins. Only three other pitchers made it for their respective teams in that window: Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke and Gerrit Cole. With the inclusion of that 2016 championship, Lester’s signing is one of the big returns on free agency investment, along with Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Max Scherzer.
Lester triumphed despite that mysterious mental block he had when pitching to the bases. In 2015, his first year with the Cubs, Lester allowed 44 stolen bases and an 80% hit rate for base robbers. Cubs manager Joe Maddon would take Lester to backfield in spring training to work on his interception pitches. The exercise would go well enough to give some hope that Lester was improving. But once Lester tried to pitch to first in games, the problem immediately resurfaced.
Maddon quickly decided on a way forward. The turn. Rather than focus on what Lester couldn’t do (pitch accurately to first base), he focused on what Lester, Rizzo, and catcher David Ross did. good. Lester was excellent at varying his wait times and sliding steps towards the plate. Rizzo and Ross were adept at making back picks to keep an honest runner at first base. Maddon and the Cubs developed this “triangle defense” to defend the running game. It worked. From 2016 to 2020, his last five years with the Cubs, Lester allowed an average of just 15 stolen bases and a 64% hit rate, doing better than average at stopping running backs.
Lester relieved Kyle Hendricks in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. He came in to pitch Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, and he did his job well: Kipnis hit a 30-foot roll and Lindor struck out. But somehow they scored two runs. Ross rolled on Kipnis and saw Lester’s wild pitch bounce so far from his face mask that they scored two runs. Lester was in line to be the winning pitcher when he handed a three-run lead to Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning. That’s when a Brandon Guyer double and a Rajai Davis home run tied the game, setting the stage for the Cubs’ 8–7 victory in 10 innings.
Lester started and won the deciding game of the 2007 World Series. A big part of the appeal of signing with the Cubs was creating a story similar to the one he saw in Boston. Lester was a 20-year-old in class A baseball in 2004 when Boston won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. He never forgot the impact of that championship.
“Those guys are legends in Boston,” Lester said when he signed with the Cubs. “I always use the comparison that Dave Roberts stole a base, and this guy hasn’t paid for a meal or a drink since.
“The appeal of bringing the World Series to [Chicago] and this team really interested me and my family. Go back to the 2004 Red Sox and think about the free agents they brought in and the players they traded. Those guys are legends for the rest of their lives. you bring that [to Chicago] and that’s an exciting time to be a part of. I’m really interested in being a part of that, breaking that curse. I know what breaking a curse can do for a city and an organization. Hopefully I can be part of that. “
Lester complied. Few pitchers get to pitch as long as Jon Lester did. Fewer still impact the epic history of baseball as Lester did. Ask a partner of his.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.