Simple Solutions For Jon Lester's Mind-Boggling Issue

There is little else in baseball that gets the heart racing more than watching a speedster lead off first base late in a close game. You can feel the pitcher and catcher's bodies tense up. Their heads spastically dart from first base to home plate and back.

When someone like Rickey Henderson measured his leads in 1-run games, you could see extra beads of sweat forming on the each pitcher's brow. You didn't know if it would be the next pitch, but you knew that sooner than later, Henderson would move himself into scoring position.

Well, with Jon Lester, every baserunner is Rickey Henderson.

In fact, until his first pickoff since 2011 (Starling Marte, you have become a trivia answer), Lester hadn't even had a legitimately close pickoff attempt all season.

In 2015, Lester has become the Oprah Winfrey of stolen bases: "You get a stolen base, you get a stolen base! EVERYONE GETS A STOLEN BASE!"

He's given up 43 of them. And the reason is clear: he cannot throw the ball to first base. And nobody can figure out why.

Everyone is trying to label it to make sense of it. That's what humans think — if it has a name, we can fix it. They call his issue the "yips," the "thing," "Steve Sax syndrome." But truthfully, Lester's issue boils down to one universal issue: fear.

Lester isn't afraid of throwing the ball to first base — he's afraid of failure. It simply manifests itself in his throws to first base. It's the same reason the 27th out feels harder to get in a perfect game, or why many players have lower averages with runners in scoring position. The stakes feel higher.

When this happens, some players tense up. When players tense up, they fail more often. Lester has convinced himself that throws to first will likely be errant, so he tenses up. Do the math.

The "yips" were documented comically in Major League II, when catcher Rube Baker could no longer throw the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. He expected his tosses to end up in centerfield, so they did. He solved the issue when he turned his thoughts to memorizing Playboy articles and redirecting his focus there. A joke, to be sure, but an interesting parallel.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that Jon Lester reads more Playboy, but I do believe redirecting the focus might prove helpful. He needs to shift the object of his focus away from the throw to something only marginally related.

This is why he was able to pick off Marte — he was throwing on the run. It was an unnatural physical movement that allowed his brain to get out of "red alert."

This brings me to four possible solutions for Jon Lester. None of them are psychologically complex. They are practical ways that a person can create a new-normal in a circumstance when the old one has been hardwired to produce tension and anxiety.

So, Jon, here are four things to try:

1) Spike the ball. Of the six overhand throws Lester has made to first base this season (he usually trots as close as possible and underhands a flip), almost all have sailed up and toward right field. Perhaps his shoulder is opening up too much, maybe his elbow is dropping. I'm not sure, but let's look to the outfield for an analogy: the one-hop throw. It's a fundamental skill that emphasizes accuracy over urgency.

This would help Lester more for fielding bunts and dribblers than for pickoff throws, but it has its analogous advantages. Namely, the first baseman can always block the ball if it is low. There's simply nothing he can do if the throw is too high.

2) Change arm slot. I was a middle infielder when I was in high school, and around my junior year I was asked to move from shortstop to second base. The new angle got in my head. I felt like I couldn't let loose, so I took velocity off of my throws. This led to errors. It took me close to a full season, but I finally figured out a way to mitigate the problem: throw sidearm. Since it was a completely different throw, my baggage disappeared. I had something new on my mind.

It's kind of like his running toss. If Lester drops his arm slot and just flings it from his hip, there's a new focus, a new release. His old physiology need not apply. Rewiring begets new results.

3) Change grip on the ball. This is a little weird, but after I left baseball I played sports in the baseball family. Among them were softball and stickball. Softballs are larger, stickballs are smaller (think pink handballs). Gripping them like baseballs (index-middle finger and thumb) led to some wild tosses. So with a softball, I added my ring finger to the mix. Conversely, the smaller stickball required me to only use an index finger and a thumb. The brand new "feel" erased any hang-ups I had brought from my old throwing habits. I wasn't "throwing to a base" how I always had, I was engaging in a new activity. Result? Chest high strikes.

4) Be purposely off-balance. This may sound counterintuitive, but, again, it is about where your mind focuses. If your mind is focusing on "don't screw up," you are opening yourself up to that option. If your mind switches to "don't fall down," the throw becomes secondary (though you might actually fall). Still, your brain is on your feet.

Step off with your left foot and place all of your weight in that knee. Lift your right foot as though your body were a tree, timbering to the left. The only option your arm will have is to fling the baseball in foreign way. You'll be so focused on staying off your backside that the throw may just get to first on autopilot.

Ultimately, all of these strategies boil down to one theory: Lester's mind has become wired to defend himself from the fear of failure. It senses danger, goes to DEFCON 1, and forces his body to respond in a panic.

Therefore, if he's unwilling to simply face that fear and chuck the ball from base to base willy-nilly (which, admittedly, is a lot harder than people might realize), the only logical solution is to redefine the matter at its core.

Do something that feels different, something that eliminates familiarity, and something that makes your mind work in a new manner.

On another note, he rediscovered the best solution against Pittsburgh last Tuesday: just dominate for nine innings. That solves the problem, too.

Comments and Conversation

September 23, 2015

clyde hessom:

I like the bounce it to first base.
I remember in minors (little league) a couple kids that could not make throw to first base. It always went wide somewhere. The coach finally had them throwing hard ground balls to first base, throwing runners out. It was funny looking but very effective. They could put the ball right at the first baseman.
It would be great to see him switch to that!

September 24, 2015

paul gregg:

Do you suppose that the distance from the pitchers mound to first base has any significance in Lester’s not being able to throw accurately?

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