On June 3rd of this year, with the Cardinals leading 2-1 in the fifth inning and Tommy Pham on first with two outs, Jon Lester quickly took his left foot off the Wrigley Field pitching rubber and lobbed a throw over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Pham, who had taken a 19-foot lead, was picked off first base to end the inning on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Chicago.
While the play seemed rather ordinary, it wasn’t. The pickoff was highly unusual because it was Lester’s first successful pickoff since 2015 and just his third since 2012. It was meaningful because, entering this year, Lester had all but stopped throwing to first — or in any direction other than home plate — because of the psychological block referred to as the “yips” in athletic parlance.
Lester declined to address the play afterward telling reporters: “Whatever… I just try and get outs.’’
Lester was tired of talking about the condition. He was tired of being in the center of the field, all eyes fixed upon him, and baserunners taunting him as the condition lost its status as a secret. The spotlight on his issues was never brighter than in last year’s World Series:
“I tell people, ‘You think it’s fun for me to look at a guy who is 20 feet off the bag in a World Series game?’” Lester told FanGraphs. “You think that’s fun? That’s where the frustration falls in.”
Give Lester credit: a stranger — this author — approached him to talk about his ongoing battle last Sunday, about whether his June 3 toss was an indication of progress, and Lester agreed to speak about the issue. Issues psychological in nature can be taboo to address in a professional clubhouse, and perhaps that is part of the problem. I had wondered back in February if baseball could solve the yips, if the softer sciences might represent unexplored frontiers for the sport. It’s why I approached Lester, one of the few people in the baseball world going though the issue at the moment.
“It’s not like you can hide from it,” Lester said. “I’m standing on the mound in front of 40,000 people and the guy has a 20-foot lead. It’s not something you can exactly crawl into a hole and get away from.”
The yips have swallowed the careers of players like Rick Ankiel and Steve Blass. Other have found a way back, like Steve Sax, to whom I spoke for the piece I wrote earlier this year. I was curious to speak with Lester because he has been in a metaphorical hole and I was curious if he was finding his way out.
Lester made 98 pickoff attempts in 2010 and 70 in 2011. But then something happened.
“It wasn’t one pickoff throw and I decided ‘No more,’” Lester said. “It was over time.”
Lester made just five pickoff throws in 2012, seven in 2013, and none in 2014, according to SportingCharts data. He did not make a single pickoff attempt over the course of 66 consecutive starts until this one on April 13, 2015:
Lester’s issue was no longer a secret.
“It’s almost like your human psyche gets in the way of doing stuff since you where however tall,” said Lester, marking the height of where he had perhaps stood as a T-baller.
And it is through that statement which Lester perhaps hits on the essence, the root, of the yips.
Back in February I linked to a Malcolm Gladwell piece, “The Art of Failure”, published in 2000 for the New Yorker. In speaking to a number of experts, Gladwell boiled the yips — aka choking — down to an automated task becoming un-automated.
According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia …. when you are first taught something — say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand — you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking… Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch… The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.
I asked Lester if he was consciously thinking about his throwing mechanics on pickoff plays, if the task had somehow morphed from automated to un-automated, from the subconscious — which accounts for the majority of brain capability, to a conscious process.
“I don’t know. I don’t think of it that way…” Lester said. “I think, if I knew, that there would probably be an easy way to fix it. We’ve broken it down and done different things and it is still what it is.”
What’s interesting about Lester and Sax — who dealt and overcame the issue in the 1980s — is that they were fine when the stadium was empty. In practice, in an empty Wrigley Field or at a private spring-training back field, Lester said he had no problems throwing to first base.
“No,” said Lester, shaking his head side to side, “No.”
Sax was blindfolded and could throw to first base without issue in Dodger Stadium — hours before batting practice.
Back in 2014, writing for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I spoke to University of Chicago psychology professor and author of Choke, Sian Beilock, who agreed the yips are about a task becoming un-automated, but there was another crucial factor: the yips are also tied to environment.
“(Our mind) is a limited-capacity system. We can only pay attention to so much at one time. As we get better and better, some of what we do becomes automated so we can use our (consciousness) for other things. The issue is when we are in a stressful situation and working under pressure to perform well or had a poor performance in the past, those tasks that were automated before become un-automated. We start consciously attending to them… When people are watching you, you start watching yourself.”
Fortunately for Lester and the Cubs, Lester has not lost the ability to throw toward home plate. But Lester’s throwing issue is still a portal through which to view a block that can end careers.
In 2014, I watched Pedro Alvarez throw flawlessly, mostly flawlessly, during infield work in an empty PNC Park. When the game started, he lost the ability to throw accurately. As recently as 2013, he was a three-win third baseman, but his loss of the ability to throw across the diamond forced him to first base, where he continued to have defensive issues. His run production was insufficient for his new position, which limited his market to a minor-league deal last offseason. The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft is playing in Triple-A in Norfolk, Va. The yips have cost him millions and maybe a major-league career.
What if teams could figure out to cure the yips? What if teams could better understand the soft science of performance?
“If there was a way to fix it, Chuck Knoblauch wouldn’t have had to move to the outfield,” Lester said. “Mackey Sasser wouldn’t have had to stop doing what he was doing. Rick Ankiel wouldn’t have had to stop pitching. We just try to combat it. I think that’s the right word for me.”
The Cubs and Lester are still working, but they have changed their approach.
Earlier in his time in Chicago, in Boston, Lester and his coaches tried to work through the issue. They tried every move, every motion off the mound, to control the run game. And what might work on spring-training back fields and in empty stadiums hours before first pitch, did not not work in games.
Joe Maddon said late last spring that he and the staff elected to take a new approach, and it’s working. The Cubs have caught eight base-stealers and only allowed seven steals when Lester has pitched this season. The league caught-stealing rate is 29%. Last season, 33% of base-stealers were caught when Lester was pitching. The league average was 27%.
“I think we finally arrived with a method we felt is more sustainable and are attacking this situation as opposed to the previous conventional methods we tried,” Maddon said. “And right now, he is one of the toughest guys to run against in the major leagues. Part of that was having a catcher like Rossie [David Ross] or a catcher like [Willson Contreras] that can really throw well and accurately. That matters. That’s a big part of the control. What [Anthony Rizzo] does at first that people are not aware of [including hand signals for pickoff calls], and also what Jonny does really well, subtle stuff. So we figured this out last spring. I finally had an epiphany where we never had any hard-and-fast rules… and finally arrived at some things.”
The Cubs, remarkably, have worked around the issue and are better than league average at controlling the run game when Lester is on the mound — even though opponents know he has little chance, or interest, in preventing a 20-foot lead. To have him worry less about the run game, Lester credited Ross and Contreras’s reminders to not worry about runners. Let them attempt to run, they told Lester, and they will throw them out. So even if Lester never beats the yips, he might have outflanked the issue.
But what’s also interesting is that the Cubs reduced Lester’s work on throwing to first and other bases this spring. There was less focus internally on remedying the issue and perhaps that has helped him. It was Beilock who told me too much practice, too much work, can be detrimental, as it places more focus and pressure upon the issue. Lester said he does not work on pickoff moves as much between starts, but I asked if the snap throw he demonstrated on June 3 could be a solution.
“Hopefully, yeah,” Lester said.
I suggested to Lester that, rather than a story of human weakness, his story could, perhaps should, be seen as one of creativity and resiliency in working around the issue.
“I like where your mind is there,” Lester said. “Usually everyone is more on the side of ‘Why can’t you do it? Why can’t you do it?’ That’s where my frustration comes.”
He was frustrated during the playoffs last season when there was more focus on the yips than his run prevention. (He allowed just two runs over his first three starts, covering 21 innings in the NLDS and NLCS.) What’s also remarkable about Lester’s condition is that he didn’t lose the ability to throw home, to carve up batters. He remains a quality starting pitcher.
“I feel like I have good enough stuff to get hitters out, so I just worry about getting the hitters out,” Lester said. “I make adjustments as we go and maybe we will get a few more [tosses] over there [to first base].”
There is also this: Lester has overcome much greater issues. He has beaten cancer. In contrast, the yips are meaningless. “I always have things in perspective,” Lester said.
And so while Lester does not quite understand what he is fighting, perhaps it is that perspective that will allow him to beat it.