Do More of What They Do Best

On December 10th, 2014, the Chicago Cubs spent $155 million on a 31-year old pitcher who was mentally incapable of throwing a baseball from the pitcher’s mound to first base.

Jon Lester had developed a case of the “y*ps.” 

Editor’s Note - It is widely accepted that the “y*ps” may be extremely contagious when the word is spoken out loud, and can cause irreparable harm to an athlete’s career. Experts disagree on the effect of sharing the word in written form. To protect our faithful readers, we will substitute an asterisk for the letter “i” just in case.

At one time in his career, Lester had one of the best pickoff moves in all of baseball. Base stealers were successful just 64% of the time during his first six seasons in the majors. Then, in 2011, without warning or explanation, Lester suddenly, and irreversibly, could not make an accurate throw from the pitcher’s mound to first base.

From 2012 until his signing with the Cubs, base stealers were successful 80% of the time when Lester was on the mound. Base runners had a field day as Lester’s confidence tanked.

Lester wasn’t the only high-profile addition to the Cubs that year. Joe Maddon was hired as the team’s new manager, and he believed Lester’s “condition” could be cured.

During their first spring training together, Lester worked for hours with pitching coach Chris Bosio on throwing the ball to first base. Progress proved fleeting. Despite Lester’s improvement in practice, once he stepped onto the mound in an actual game, the y*ps returned.

The Cubs, eager to get the most from their $155 million man, tried everything that season as Lester finished the year with a losing record for only the second time in his career. His case of the y*ps took on a life of its own on social media, and became a significant distraction for Lester whenever a runner reached base.

And then Joe Maddon had an epiphany. 

“What are we doing here? Why do we keep putting these thoughts in his head?”

Maddon met with Lester and told him to forget about throwing over to first base completely, as he explained to author Tom Verducci in the book The Cubs Way:

“Let’s get our concentration back on the hitter. Let’s work on what we do well , not on what we don’t do well. The more attention you put on what you don’t do well, the stuff you do well is getting away from you. And my contention is if you continue to do well in what you do well, the other stuff is going to become moot.”

Maddon and Lester met with catcher David Ross and first baseman Anthony Rizzo to formulate a baserunning defense that did not involve a pickoff move from the pitcher. Lester would learn to vary his timing to the plate, while Ross and Rizzo worked on the catcher throwing behind the runner. In fact, Ross went on to pick off eleven baserunners while working with Lester. Over the following five seasons, base stealers were successful just 64% against Lester which was better than the league average. 

One simple change in mindset proved to make all the difference in the world. 

“Rather than focusing on what Lester could not do—throw accurately to first base—he focused on what Lester, Rizzo and catcher David Ross did well. And it worked.”

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick describes a similar approach this way, “You play to your strengths and attack your opponents weaknesses.” While that may seem simple in theory, it is often difficult in practice because it requires us to spend less time refining a player’s weaknesses and more time developing opportunities for them to play to their strengths. 

In the case of Jon Lester, Maddon unleashed his catcher who had one of the quickest transfers in the game, to be more aggressive throwing behind runners. He knew that base stealers would wander too far from the bag, overly confident in their belief that Lester would never throw to first base. The Cubs exploited that weakness by changing their defense to fit what their players could do rather than what they could not.

Lester pitched with a renewed freedom to focus on what he did best, attacking hitters at the plate. With his attention no longer divided, he finished second in the Cy Young Award voting in 2016 (an award given to the top pitcher in each league) and the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908. 

As coaches, it’s easy to fixate on our players’ limitations especially when those weaknesses are fundamental to how we think the game should be played. For Jon Lester to play with the y*ps he needed someone to think differently about baserunning defense. He needed a manager to free Lester to do what he did best, and not worry about the rest. 

Lester needed a coach that was willing to challenge his own fundamental beliefs about the game to fully unlock his best player’s potential. 

Are your beliefs about how the game should be played holding your players back from doing what they do best?

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson

Story adapted from Tom Verducci’s book The Cubs Way

See also John Lester’s Epic Baseball Story Comes to an End

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