Life after David Ross for Jon Lester
Judging from David Ross’ “farewell tour” last season, one would think the 35-year-old was a Cub for the entirety of his 15-year career. Random clubhouse parties were hosted by Ross’ teammates in his honor, a dedicated “Grandpa Rossy” Instagram account was born and the best of them all, a touching standing ovation at Wrigley when Joe Maddon removed his catcher in the 7th inning of his last regular season home game.
Keep in mind Ross was only in Chicago for two seasons. It felt more like six or seven from the way the veteran catapulted to the top of the clubhouse in popularity, serving as a leader for the team as well as a mentor to the young core—especially guys like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.
A fan favorite, Ross will be duly missed by the Chicago faithful. His positivity that that did not waver regardless of the situation and the witty one-liners during postgame media sessions will be cherished for years to come on the north side. As such, the organization is undoubtedly sad to see him step away from the game. But, perhaps more than anyone, a certain 33-year-old southpaw will have to adjust for life without Ross.
Jon Lester and Ross linked up in Boston in 2013 when Ross rejoined the Red Sox after four seasons in Atlanta. He quickly emerged as Lester’s “personal” catcher— serving as the backstop in 29 of Lester’s 33 starts during Boston’s championship season. With Ross behind the plate, Lester posted a 2.77 ERA in the regular season and elevated his game to a new level in the postseason, posting a 1.33 ERA in four starts.
News of Ross heading to the north side flew under the radar when it was announced in December of 2014. The Cubs are adding a veteran catcher to sit behind Montero? So?
Eventually, the significance of the acquisition became apparent. When Lester joined the Cubs in that same offseason, we all knew the talent he brought to the rotation. We knew that he had a ring. We knew that he was a gamer.
But as a result of Lester’s tenure in the American League, many Cubs fans did not know of his incapability as a defender on the mound. If you were aware, you probably did not fully understand the severity of the lefty’s kryptonite. Not only can Lester not field a bunt, but he can’t hold a runner on or throw a pick off to any base. At all.
He just can’t do it.
The frustration that boils over watching guys like Joey Votto and Ryan Braun take 40-foot leads from first base off Lester has the capability of bringing a burning red color to my cheeks. I shared the same mindset as many: the team is paying you an unfathomable salary, and you can’t throw a ball 45 feet to first base?
If it wasn’t for David Ross, a walk or single yielded by Lester would essentially serve as a double—maybe even a triple in some cases. Analytic numbers are unnecessary when describing the iron clad security blanket Ross provided behind the plate every fifth day.
Ross likely had more pickoffs from the catcher position in his two seasons with the team than I’ve seen combined in my life of watching the sport. The way Ross could snap a throw down to Rizzo (sometimes from his knees) was nothing short of unbelievable, effectively compensating for Lester’s inability.
Lester’s intensity on the mound is fun to watch. He is passionate and wears his heart on the sleeve. Each time out, he’s expects himself to go the distance and keep the opposition off the board. The man is as humble as they come in the league, apologizing on Twitter during a turbulent stretch of outings and never deflecting the blame anywhere else but upon himself.
When Lester gets going in a start, it is like watching fine art in motion. A string of consecutive 1-2-3 innings—typically followed by a fist pump or an inaudible scream to nobody in particular—is vintage Lester. Once dialed in, you can count on Jon to give the team quality frames.
The problem is that a pitcher isn’t always going to be in a groove. Sometimes it takes a challenge or two in the early innings to force a reboot and get the train back on the track. When a hurler relies on momentum and focus like Lester does, it is pivotal to limit the distractions on the bases and allow maximum concentration on the batter.
Ross affords his battery mate this luxury. Even if Lester has allowed a runner, you can sometimes see Ross pat his chest protector with his glove, silently telling his pitcher, “I got him. Just you and me, let’s get this guy at the plate.”
Lester’s lone contribution to stopping the run game is his ability to come to a standstill pause on the mound before delivering the pitch. This forces the runner to try and swipe the base flat-footed, in which case Ross would probably nab him with a low rocket paired with a trademark Javier Baez tag. Ross nailed 18-of-69 runners, a number that would have been substantially higher if it weren’t for the several times the runner was already 10 feet from the base before Ross had the ball in his mitt.
Looking ahead to candidates for catching the bulk of Lester’s starts this coming season, Willson Contreras is at the top of my list. Contreras has shown an uncanny ability of throwing runners out and executing pick-offs to perfection. Remember the snap throw down to second base to nab Justin Turner in Game 4 of the NLCS? Contreras make more sense than Miguel Montero, who struggles managing the running game as it is.
We’re all going to miss David Ross. He stole the city’s heart in just two seasons and hangs up his cleats with a ring and the lifelong memories, including his breathtaking home run in Game 7. It is fair to say that Ross probably won’t pay for another meal in Chicago again.
It is also fair to say that Lester owes him a steak dinner.