In his first season in the majors back in 2006 (which was the Washington Nationals’ second season after baseball returned to D.C.), Jon Lester had a nine-year veteran backstop behind the plate, in Jason Varitek, while he adjusted to the majors. Boston’s 2002 2nd Round pick joined a veteran Red Sox’ rotation that featured a couple 39-year-old starters (Curt Schilling; Tim Wakefield) and a younger, experienced starter (Josh Beckett). Lester knew from the start that a lot was expected of him.
“I think it all started with having Varitek,” he said of his adjustment to big league work.
Varitek, then 34, was just what Lester needed to motivate him to put in the work to produce as part of a competitive rotation.
“If you come up as a young guy with maybe a younger catcher you don’t get pushed in areas that you might should,” Lester explained, after the now-15-year veteran signed a 1-year/$5M free agent deal with the Washington Nationals last month.
“[Varitek] caught such a veteran staff for so long that when I got called up he expected me to be these guys, and I think that’s what drove me to every day try to get better at something whether it be command of a certain side of the plate or a pitch or whatnot, and then as you get older, things kind of slow down, your velocity slows down, so you start relying on other pitches that you might not have at an earlier age.”
How has he adjusted over the course of his career?
“At an earlier age I never really threw my changeup,” Lester said. “Now my changeup has become more of a weapon that I use more frequently. So, you just to learn to evolve.”
Accepting change and adapting your game, Lester said, is one of the obvious keys to a long career in the majors, where the goal for pitchers is simple: To get outs.
“You have to learn how to get outs,” the three-time World Series winner and five-time All-Star said.
“And I think as you get older — as it gets harder, as you get older, you try to make getting outs easier if that makes sense.
“So it’s just an evolving thing, and something that every day I’m learning.”
Even as he struggled in his 15th big league campaign, and sixth season in Chicago after he left Boston and signed a 6-year/$155M free agent deal in 2014, putting up a 5.16 ERA, a 5.14 FIP, 17 walks (2.51 BB/9), and 42 strikeouts (6.20 K/9) in 61 innings pitched, holding opposing hitters to a combined .262/.318/.459 line, Lester said he was still learning.
“Last year I learned a lot about what I could pitch with and what I couldn’t pitch with and how I need adjust as far as my game plan and attack plan even though it was just such a short season,” he said after making twelve starts in the 60-game season.
Talking with veterans Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin once his new club gets to Spring Training, Lester said, is another opportunity to continue learning the craft of pitching in the majors.
“That’s something that is another thing I want to talk to these guys about and see how they adjust,” he said. “These guys still have great stuff and a lot of good innings in them, and I’m just excited to see that and maybe learn something from them that can maybe apply to me getting those outs a little bit easier even though I don’t have quite the stuff that I used to.”
“I’ve gotten to know Scherzer a little bit over the years,” Lester said at another point in his Zoom call with reporters last month.
“I don’t really know Stras and Patrick that well yet, look forward to that. I’m just excited to kind of dig into their minds and see how they prepare and really just stay out of the way.
“I want to be kind of a fly on the wall with this rotation and just try to help out the best that I can.”