Forest through the trees.
This moment isn't about trading Jon Lester. This moment is about Jon Lester.
Jon Lester has been scratched from his scheduled start on Wednesday. There's a very good chance he's made his last start as a member of the Red Sox, at least this year, quite possibly forever.
That is the reality of the present, with resounding fascination about what lies ahead: Will a deal go down? With whom will a deal go down? For whom will a deal go down?
All valid questions. All eyes are on where Lester makes his next start and what the Red Sox might get in return as they try to leave behind what is descending into an abomination of a 2014 season.
In many ways, the focus on where Lester ends up obscures a more significant story. How did Lester arrive at this point? How did he, over the course of 12 years, transform himself many times over into a pitcher who now is at the absolute zenith of his career, who looks like someone at the height of his powers and knows it?
The 2014 season marks a coming of age. It has been a year littered with potentially uncomfortable questions -- about his contract talks with the Sox, about the possibility of being traded. Yet Lester has seemed more secure than ever in fielding those inquiries about what is happening around him off the field, and it is precisely because of his newfound comfort in who he is on the mound.
The change in Lester's demeanor in everything he does has been striking. In the past, Lester never seemed satisfied with what he was doing or what he'd done. Even when he performed at a level that placed him among the best in the game, he rarely exuded joy or contentment.
This spring, however, he finally arrived at a point where for the first time in his career he could appreciate his broader body of work. Unexpectedly, the very phenomenon that could have proved the pitcher's ultimate distraction for the 2014 season -- his looming free agency following the season -- instead left him at peace with what he'd already done, and in turn, what lay in front of him.
"I really didn’t get to appreciate where I’m at in my career until this spring training, just because of where I’m at in my career with free agency. You sit down with your agent and they give you a book and they compare you to any pitcher that’s ever played this game," Lester said in the Red Sox dugout at Fenway Park on Monday. "You start to see your numbers next to Cy Young and Babe Ruth and the list goes on, and then you get to more current pitchers, and you get to guys that are here with you and guys that get all the pub.
"They’re the elite of the elite and you start putting your numbers next to theirs and you’re going '[Shoot], I’m pretty good.' I look over at Felix Hernandez and I’m like, ‘Man, how do you do this [stuff]?’ It’s unbelievable. Or Adam Wainwright or Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee. And then all of sudden you put my name and it’s like, all right, you’re a little bit better in some categories, but I’m right there with you. That’s where I've got to kind of go, 'I am pretty good.'
"Sometimes I get so focused on what I’m doing. Sometimes you need someone to go, 'Hold on, time out. Come here, let me show you this. This is where you’re at. Take a look at it, appreciate it, now move on.' And that’s what I did. It was cool. I know [agent Seth Levinson] does it for everybody, but I thanked him for showing it to me and I think that put me in a different place. Anytime you get compared to Babe Ruth and Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Hall of Famers, you’re like, maybe I’m doing something right."
Such a perspective marks a watershed in Lester's career, at a time when he is performing at a level that surpasses anything he's accomplished before.
Even as the explosiveness of his stuff, while still very real, may not be what it was, he is a pitcher who has finally become comfortable in his own skin, no longer self-punishing and instead confident in who he is and what he can do. It is apparent to those who watch Lester, who note the absence of the frustrated reactions to calls from umpires, the absence of self-directed anger due to his mechanics on an individual pitch, the fact that he no longer skulks around the mound while snapping his glove at return throws.
Those frustrations have been removed. Lester no longer is fighting himself, and is instead pitching with a sense of near serenity and confidence.
And by virtue of the fact that he's remained to this point in the same organization where he has spent a baseball lifetime, surrounded by people who have known him for ages -- some since his first days as a pro in 2002, others who have borne witness to nearly all of his big league career -- there is a fuller appreciation for both what he's become and how he's gotten there.
"It's a different person. It's a mature person," Red Sox manager John Farrell said of the distinction between Lester in 2014 as compared to the early stages of his career. "That's a beautiful place to be. The thing you're most proud of is to watch the evolution, and not only to self-correct, but to understand and read swings and pitch accordingly. The end goal is to have every player be their own coach. To see that evolve has been awesome to watch."
Lester chuckles at the memories of his professional origins, and the inquiries about the earliest adjustments he made to get on a path to big league success.
"That's old school now," he says with a grin. "I knew everything when I was 18. You could have just asked me. I would have told you."
Lester entered the Red Sox organization as the first draft pick under the current ownership group -- a second-rounder, the No. 57 overall pick who commanded an above-slot bonus of $1 million -- as a pitcher who worked in the high 80s and sometimes cracked the 90 mph threshold. He was tall but gangly, weighing by his recollection about 190 pounds, and he struggled to maintain rhythm and repetition in his delivery.
The Red Sox broke down and rebuild his delivery, with Al Nipper -- Lester's pitching coach in High-A Sarasota in 2004 -- getting an opportunity to help mold the pitcher and put him on a path that would help carry him to the big leagues.
Then, to establish the right rhythm, Lester would bring his hands over his head. Somehow, that served as a trigger that helped him establish a more direct line to the plate. Instead of coming across his body, he began moving more directly to his target. His velocity spiked. He began to be able to locate the ball to the glove side of the plate, burying right-handed hitters and getting on a path that placed him on a big league fast track.
That was the first time Lester learned he could adjust and become a better pitcher for it. The next would occur in the big leagues, in a 2007 season that represented a triumph simply for the fact that, after seeing his promising rookie campaign truncated by a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, he was pitching again.
But after an inspiring return that year on July 23, when claimed a win with six innings in which he allowed two runs, Lester saw his results slide. He gave up 13 runs in his next 15 innings, and looked uncomfortable on the mound. Farrell, then the Red Sox pitching coach, and bullpen coach Gary Tuck intervened and helped create the template for Lester's delivery, in a conversation that Lester conjures as if it took place far more recently than seven years ago.
Tuck: "A guy comes up to the free throw line, bounces three times, goes around his back, does a 360 and shoots a free throw, how many out of 10 is he going to make?"
Lester: "I don’t know, probably three or four?"
Tuck: "But it looks good, right?"
Lester: "Well, yeah, it looks awesome. That’s cool."
Tuck: "How about the guy that goes up there, bounces it three times and shoots? How many times is he going to make it?"
Lester: "I don’t know, probably eight or nine out of 10."
" 'OK, so why do this?' " Tuck responded, indicating the incorporation of the hands over his head that Lester had been taught by Nipper. "You’re making it harder."
"We just went back to parking it out front, and from then on, it stuck," Lester said, invoking the phrase taught to him by Tuck of keeping his hands in front of his body while delivering. "And that’s me."
Recalled Farrell: "We took the full windup away and gave him a more simplified delivery. It was just more about body control and repeating his delivery. At the time, he was challenged to throw strikes on the arm side of the plate. He would work across himself, he'd work east and west vs. north and south. That [meeting] was one that I think initiated the path to become the pitcher he is now. It was more delivery related."
Lester found the mechanics that would make him good. The next spring, when he showed up weighing 235 pounds -- about 25 pounds more than he was at the start of 2007 following his cancer treatment -- he had power to go with the delivery, and the confidence of having won a World Series-clinching game.
The combination positioned Lester for a breakout based on the fact that, for the first time since 2005, he had explosive mid-90s stuff at his disposal. Success came easily after that, in no small part because, at 24, he could pitch on auto-pilot while working with Jason Varitek.
"I was still young and I didn't know why I was successful. I knew I had good stuff," said Lester. "But my first couple of years, I had Tek, so it was just, 'Yeah, I'll throw that. Yeah, I'll throw that.' "
He succeeded on power more than craft or artistry, which was fine. From 2008-10, Lester kept making gains in terms of his power and stuff, and he could typically step onto the mound and claim easy mid-90s velocity on his fastball with a wipeout cutter, a sharp curve that he could bury down and a developing changeup that started to open up what he was trying to accomplish by pitching to both sides of the plate.
The 2011 season was different. For most of the first half, Lester was fighting, searching for his feel on the mound, at a time when he was transitioning to work with a new signal-caller in Jarrod Saltalamacchia. For the first half of that year, Lester pitched effectively (he was 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA through the All-Star break), but rarely felt fully in sync until his final start of the first half -- in which he dominated for four no-hit innings before having to leave the game due to a strained lat.
The injury was considered relatively minor at the time. Lester's stay on the disabled list was described as more precautionary than anything else, and he was once again pitching shortly after the All-Star break, on July 25.
By and large, Lester pitched respectably in that second half, forging a 3.72 ERA albeit with uncharacteristically high walk rates, but the impact of the lat strain lingered -- not in terms of how he felt, but in terms of his efforts at self-protection.
"I don't think I fully, I shouldn't say came back from it, but I think anytime you have an extended period of layoff where you don't throw and get rest and you come back and you try to hurry up to get back, I don't think you fully trust that it's not going to do it again," said Lester. "That's where I really fell into my bad ways. That just carried over into '12."
THE CRISIS: 2012
The 2011 season, punctuated by the Red Sox' collapse and the suggestions of in-game clubhouse improprieties, represented the first time that Lester became a target for criticism. But in 2012, Lester endured his most significant performance struggle.
He went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA. The issues were mechanical -- primarily in the way that Lester found himself once again swinging across his body, becoming an east-west rather than north-south pitcher, thus losing velocity and command. But he couldn't make an in-season correction, and so he ended up banging his head against a wall often enough and hard enough that he busted open a hole in which he would, eventually, find an unexpected bounty.
Lester hadn't taken the time to figure out a formula for success to that point in his career. His stuff was so good that he didn't have to. Failure in 2012 forced him to seek revelations, insights and self-awareness that would serve as the foundation for his subsequent evolution.
It was a miserable time in his career. But it would position Lester for subsequent success.
"Honestly, struggling in '12 helped me figure out who I was even more. When you're struggling, you think, the stuff I'm throwing now is the same, but why is it not working?" said Lester. "You go back and look at film and say, the percentages of fastballs at this side of the plate and that side of the plate, why are they not swinging at my cutter? Why are they not swinging at my curveball? And you start putting pieces together, and then come '13, I started getting back to being myself. You struggle a little bit, but you come back out in the second half and it's like, this is why they swing at my cutter. This is why my curveball in the dirt, they swing at. This is why they take this pitch. This is why the backdoor cutter works."
THE WATERSHED: 2013 TO PRESENT
With the return of Farrell and the arrival of pitching coach Juan Nieves in 2013, Lester worked to restore the north-south axis of his mechanics. Initial returns were extremely promising -- he carried a 2.72 ERA through nine starts -- but things soon went off the rails, with Lester going 2-5 with a 6.49 ERA in his final 10 starts of the first half.
He wore his frustration in everything he did between starts. The dissatisfaction with one outing bled into the next, compounding his issues. He had little trust in what he was doing to prepare himself.
"For a while, when I struggled, it was like I would stand up and beat my head against a pole," said Lester. "Every day was a new flat ground, a longer bullpen, a longer long toss and I found myself kind of being mentally and physically fried on my start day, and obviously that's not what you want."
Finally, he tried to breathe and reset at the end of June. He saw some progress in his last starts of the first half, but the opportunity to back away from the game for nine days surrounding the All-Star Game provided Lester a chance to stop beating himself up, to stop thinking that everything he was doing was wrong.
"That hit me during the perfect time," said Lester. "You forget about baseball, you watch the All-Star Game, you hang out with your family, you get away, and then coming back it was like, 'I don't remember what all we were working on. I've got to throw my bullpen, I've got to play catch, I've got to get ready,' and from there, I felt more relaxed and was able to go out and with more of a clear mind and execute.
"[After the All-Star break] was where I was starting to feel like myself again and now I can work on what's our game plan, what's the game plan within the game, as far as, if they change what they try to do against me, I have an adjustment and then it's simply going out there and trying to execute over and over. Once you eliminate or have fewer thoughts in your head, obviously you're starting to focus on the right things and I think that's where I got to last year and that's how I've continued to this point."
Lester had reached a point where he didn't have to fight his mechanics. When he stopped thinking about those, he could instead start to apply some of the lessons and revelations he'd achieved during the 2012 season from hell. His mechanics permitted him to execute to both sides of the plate, so suddenly he felt comfortable dropping a backdoor curveball on a right-hander in a count where he might be looking for a cutter in.
For the first time, the left-hander viewed himself as someone capable of succeeding on the basis of execution more than power. And so, he achieved a kind of state of pitching nirvana that has carried forward for the better part of a year.
He has been comfortable in his mechanics, confident in his ability to pitch effectively regardless of what kind of velocity readings he's posting on the scoreboard. He's moved beyond the point of self-doubt that characterized late 2011, all of 2012 and early 2013.
"Now, I still have stuff, but I don't have 96, 97 when I want it," said Lester. "It’s easier, my effort level is easier and more consistent through the game, conserve energy. As a kid, you almost have a reliever’s mentality trying to go seven innings. So you care more about turning around and seeing 97, 98 sometimes than whether or not you gave up a homer. It’s just that learning curve. You learn to make adjustments quicker, you learn that I don’t need 97 -- 92-93 down and away is just as good as anything. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. Each year I learn something new and continue to build."
There is a newfound, overall self-assurance in his craft that permits him to accept one bad outcome -- a bad pitch that gets hammered; a bad outing -- as an isolated incident from which he can move on.
"It's what you have to do. It's almost like playing cornerback. You've got to go, I got beat. What am I going to do next time?" Lester said. "It takes age. It takes time. It takes understanding that you're not, you have 33 starts, you're not going to go 33-0.
"As time goes on, the game slows down," he added. "You're in the right frame of mind. That's when pitching becomes fun, when it becomes that cat-and-mouse game of, what am I going to do to get you out, and what are you going to do to me to not let me go to my plan. You figure those things out."
THE PATH FORWARD
A few years ago, Lester might have had a hard time reconciling himself to the aging process. He might have fought it, tried to alter his between-starts work, worked out harder to try to maintain strength and power and to rage against the dying of the light.
Now, he accepts what it means to be a pitcher who is -- gasp -- an ancient 30 years old, armed with the experience of just over 1,500 innings. For the first time, Lester believes that he understands how to be successful in a way that, so long as he stays with the between-starts routine that has made him a 200-innings-a-year lock since 2008 (save for the lat injury), will serve him well for the longer term, understanding that if he loses a tick or two on his fastball, he still has plenty -- in combination with his understanding of his mix -- to thrive.
He no longer fights against age. He accepts it, works with it, seeks lessons from experience.
"We’re all hard-headed and we all have egos. It's hard not to notice when you look out there and turn around and it’s 91," said Lester. "But the guys that accept it and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to make my 91 look like 95, so this is what I’m going to do to still be effective.'
"I would like to think, for me, yeah, my velocity has dropped a little bit, but I’d like to think with this body type and [he and teammate John Lackey] have similar body types, just to sustain enough velocity, 92, 93 or whatever, consistently to where I can pitch for a long time, barring obviously injuries and anything like that, that’s the ultimate goal with it. And if not, you figure it out. There’s nothing else you can do.
"It’s part of life. I think the quicker people understand that and the quicker you accept it, especially like now, you can accept it and learn when you still have stuff how to manipulate lineups and pitch when you don’t necessarily have your best velocity but you’ve got something else if you learn how to do that. That prepares you for that time when you’re looking up there and you’re topping out at 91. You’re still effective.
"I’m not going to quit. I love this game and I want to play it as long as I can, and if that’s four more years or eight more years, whatever it is, I want to continue to do it and I want my kids to be a part of it. Hopefully it’s not over for a while."
As he imagines that distanct future, Lester sits serenely in the eye of a storm. Uncertainty hovers over his future, whether the trade rumors that likely will sweep him out of Boston as soon as Wednesday or an unknown destination -- perhaps back with the Red Sox, perhaps not -- in free agency.
He knows what course he'd like his career to take going forward. He also knows that there are aspects of that course that he cannot control. He accepts that, expresses understanding -- even empathy -- for the position of the Red Sox even as the very real possibility of his imminent departure looms.
For Lester, the unknowns no longer alter the enjoyment of where he is. For the first time, he occupies a position of considerable contentment, understanding how far he has come to get here.