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Will NL exploit Jon Lester’s throwing yips?

Jon Lester (right) had a tough time of things in his Cubs debut last week.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

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.

Sax was helped after a conversation with his dying father, who told him that he too had had a throwing problem, and he overcame it a little at a time. It turned out Sax’s father made the story up in an attempt to assist his son.


“I really don’t think it’s a mental block like people are making it out to be. I think once your confidence is restored, you regain that ability,” Sax said. “For me, that confidence was restored on the last day of my father’s life.”

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.



Games on fast track in the early going

Is it really working? Over a 162-game schedule, will game times really be reduced by 10-15 minutes, as they have been in the first week?

“I’m very happy with it so far,” said Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, who spearheaded pace of play initiatives while being considered for commissioner, and then served on the pace of play committee. “I know it’s a small sample size, but so far the games have been shorter and the players seem to be adhering to the new rules.”

Major League Baseball has delivered warning letters to batters who have not had one foot in the box after a called strike or ball. MLB has said that it will allow players to ease into the new rules in the first month of the season. But after that, umpires may be told to speak to players and enforce the rules to the letter of the law.

The first 35 games averaged 2 hours 52 minutes, considerably lower than the 3:01 over a similar sample size in 2014.

The hitters seem to be getting the message. Entering Friday’s games, no warnings had been issued to pitchers, who have to deliver the ball quicker after the break between innings — 2:25 for locally televised games and 2:45 for national games.

Hitters will tell you they’re not thinking about pace of play while they’re at the plate. They’re not worrying about keeping one foot in the box. But as warning letters become more abundant, with fines to follow for repeat offenders, it will sink in even more. Will it ever change the approach of hitters? Will they get easily distracted? Will it, as David Ortiz said, give all the advantage to the pitcher since the hitter won’t be able to think about his game plan pitch to pitch?

Apropos of nothing

1. New San Francisco GM Bobby Evans, a Framingham native, doesn’t think the Giants will go after another starting pitcher, feeling that Jake Peavy (back) is healthy, giving them six starters. However, Evans said the Giants will keep an eye on the pitching market to see what’s out there. Evans is not anticipating a major problem to the elbow of Matt Cain, who is on the disabled list.

2. Cody Ross had his best year in Boston in 2012. He went downhill from there, deciding to sign with Oakland last week after being let go by Arizona following hip surgery. The Red Sox offered Ross a two-year extension following the 2012 season, but he got three years from the Diamondbacks at $26 million. “I’m a little older. More mature. I’ve logged a few innings between then and now,” Ross said. “I just know what’s important now in this game. Back then, it was important to win. It was important to go out and compete and try to win a World Series, but at the same time, as a player you’re trying to fight to stay and prove yourself to get a contract and stuff like that. Then you get a little older and the main focus is on winning and getting back into the playoffs. It’s definitely something that’s been burning in me for a while.”

3. The Rangers started the season with seven relievers, but were the only team not to carry a lefthander in the bullpen. They also had the least-experienced bullpen (421 career appearances). The Blue Jays, carrying two rookies, were close with 457.

4. Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is red hot, with five homers to start the season. But he continues to say he is not a home run hitter. One AL executive has always told me that he thinks Gonzalez could hit .400 if he really focused.

5. It doesn’t look like the Red Sox will see Nationals center fielder Denard Span (abdominal muscle) or third baseman Anthony Rendon (knee) in the opening series at Fenway, but Jayson Werth could return after rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

6. If the Pirates are vulnerable in one area, it’s the inability of their catchers to control the running game. Francisco Cervelli is at 21 percent for his career, while Tony Sanchez, a former Boston College star, has allowed 21 of 25 runners to steal against him.

Updates on nine

1. Patrick Corbin, LHP, Diamondbacks — Corbin has been a huge missing piece in the rotation after undergoing Tommy John surgery last April. But he is on path to return in early June. The Diamondbacks’ rotation started poorly with an 8.16 ERA in its first 14⅓ innings.

2. Andre Ethier, OF, Dodgers — Not sure how a $16 million-a-year player can be sitting on the bench for the first three games of the season, but that’s what happened to Ethier. The Dodgers are all ears about a deal, offering help on the remaining $57 million of Ethier’s contract, but no bites. And it’s always tough to deal a guy who isn’t playing regularly.

3. Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Twins — The Twins’ situation gets worse and worse. After learning of Ervin Santana’s 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use, Nolasco, an underachiever last season, was placed on the DL (elbow). The Twins, who have little chance of competing in the AL Central, are going to go with their young starters, including Trevor May, and possibly Alex Myers and Jose Berrios. Such a strategy may be beneficial in the long run as the pitchers cut their teeth in the majors. It doesn’t appear the Twins will seek a deal for an established starter, according to their front office personnel.

4. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies — Is this the season Tulowitzki gets traded? Despite their fast start, if the season goes as expected and the Rockies are in or near the cellar by the trading deadline, there will be suitors for Tulowitzki. However, one American League GM said, “There would be a lot of work to get that done. The money remaining on his salary [$110 million] and the player acquisition cost. Not as easy as it seems. The Rockies need to get a ton for him and I doubt they’ll pick up the money.”

5. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds — What could really mess up a team landing Cueto is the Reds staying in contention. According to one National League GM, “He was the one guy among the potential free agents you could see being available. But if the Reds are also in contention it might be slim pickings at the trade deadline this year.” It’s still early. One doesn’t know where the A’s (Scott Kazmir), White Sox (Jeff Samardzija), Tigers (David Price), Nationals (Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister), and Red Sox (Justin Masterson) will be.

6. Melvin Upton Jr., OF, Padres — OK, now that Upton is in San Diego as part of the Craig Kimbrel deal (a dream come true for new Braves GM John Hart), what do the Padres do with him? We doubt this “you have to take his salary” guy will work out as well as Mike Lowell, when the Marlins insisted Lowell be a part of the Josh Beckett/Hanley Ramirez deal with the Red Sox. Upton rejoins his brother, Justin, but their careers have gone in opposite directions with Melvin (formerly B.J.) hitting .198 as a Brave the last two years. Wil Myers is currently in center for the Padres, and one supposes Myers could lose his job if he struggles. Upton could also be flipped if the Padres eat most of the deal.

7. Rafael Soriano, RHP, free agent — Soriano remains the last good free agent on the market. He’s Scott Boras’s latest Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. Last man standing, but teams will need him. The Tigers already have seen Bruce Rondon and Joe Nathan go on the DL. The Tigers are monitoring Soriano’s workouts and it wouldn’t be shocking if they pulled the trigger.

8. Deven Marrero, SS, Red Sox — One NL scout made a case that the Padres could take a chance that Marrero could solve their dilemma at shortstop. We know he can handle the position defensively, so now it’s all about offense. In a very good lineup, the Padres gamble on Marrero’s offense developing. Only one man’s theory, not a trade rumor. The flip side is that the Padres are thinking big these days. Tulowitzki?

9. Ken Giles, RHP, Phillies — Remember last year when Giles was hitting 100 miles per hour on the radar gun? Now it’s 95, and against the Red Sox last week he couldn’t find the plate. All the hard throwers eventually lose it. We saw Rubby De La Rosa, now in the Diamondbacks’ rotation, go from 100 to 93-94. The Phillies want to hand the closer role to Giles after they deal Jonathan Papelbon, but he’s not the same guy as last season. At least not yet.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “Of the 22 pitchers with at least 180 starts since 2009, none has thrown fewer innings than Rick Porcello (181 starts/1,079⅓ IP)” Also, “New Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie in his third game saw 17 pitches and went 3 for 5, which is a lot better than his second game when he saw 12 pitches and struck out four times.” . . . Happy birthday, Mike Macfarlane (51) and Vicente Romo (72).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.