What's up with Jon Lester?

CHICAGO -- Pitcher Jon Lester is off to a less than stellar start with his new team after signing a 6-year, $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs last winter. Through two outings he’s given up nine runs on 18 hits in 10 1/3 innings. He’d be 0-2 if not for the heroics of teammate Jorge Soler, who homered twice and scored the winning run Monday night in a 7-6 comeback win over the Cincinnati Reds.

And then there was the throw.

Lester attempted his first two pick-off throws in nearly two years, tossing the second one way over the head of first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The play immediately went viral and exposed why Lester has been reluctant to throw over there.

“From the outside looking in, I get it,” manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday afternoon. “I know what everyone is talking about.”

Lester said he was a little over-excited when he saw the base runner, Zack Cozart, taking a big lead and threw the ball “too soon.” Since he hasn’t done it in a while he needs to get used to it again, he explained.

“He rushed it a little bit,” catcher David Ross said. “None of us are perfect. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or how long you’ve been in the game we’re all going to make mistakes and look like idiots sometimes.”

So where does Lester go from here? Now the league has an absurdly errant throw to remind them of his issues throwing over to first base. It was probably better when he refused to throw to first, as the opposition wasn’t sure what to expect. Now they definitively know it’s a problem. But this isn’t exactly a player who backs down from a challenge, according to his bosses.

“He’s very much a grown man who chases things head-on,” Theo Epstein said. “He’s going to work. He has some things to work on.”

Maddon has some ideas about how to address the problem but wasn’t revealing them publicly. However, it’s no longer something that can be swept under the rug or called “overblown” as it was before the bad throw.

“Any moment can become a negative situation if you permit it to,” Maddon said. “We have to formulate how we want to handle it, create a plan and then just work the plan.”

The best way to handle it is for Lester to simply allow less base runners while giving his team a chance to take a lead while he’s on the mound. In both his starts the opposition has scored in the first inning. A Cubs lead should limit the opponent's running game, especially if the Cubs are up by several runs.

So why hasn’t Lester been more effective? Besides the fact that he hasn’t pitched in a normal routine since experiencing a fatigued arm in spring training -- he says he’s healthy now -- his best pitch has betrayed him. His cutter is known throughout baseball as one of the better pitches, but it’s been anything but so far. And it’s wreaked havoc on the game plan.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the opposition is hitting .478 off his cutter this season as opposed to .234 last season. His strikeout percentage using the cutter is down from 26.6 percent last season to 17.4. There’s simply way too much hard contact.

“I have no idea why that’s happening,” Ross said. “He was executing some pitches (cutters) but he wasn’t as sharp as he would like it.”

Ross said Lester survived through six innings Monday using his other pitches which have actually been “better than usual” at this time of year. His two-seam fastball and change-up, in particular, have bailed him out according to Ross. Losing the feel on a hurler’s best pitch isn’t a good feeling. Maddon is a former catcher and understands the frustration.

“You have to become creative,” Maddon said. “It is difficult.”

Both Maddon and Ross agreed the onus falls on the catcher more so than even the pitcher. They are the ones that have to adjust the game plan accordingly.

“It’s my fault as much as it is his,” Ross said. “We’re just trying to figure out how to pitch with the stuff that works right now. He’s trying so hard. There’s a lot of want-to.”

And there is a lot of baseball guilt for Lester going on as well. After Monday’s 6-inning, 6-run, 10-hit performance he told reporters he was the “back end of the chain” in regards to the Cubs starting rotation. Then on Tuesday he took to Twitter to apologize some more.

He didn’t stop there personally responding to fans one-by-one.

“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Ross said when told of the tweeting. “He wants to do his best. There is no one who works harder on a daily basis.

“I don’t think he has anything to prove but I’m sure in his mind he does. New city, new teammates, new organization. You want to show the guys how good you are so maybe just pressing a little bit.”

So Lester has more than one thing on his mind as he prepares for his next start. Will he throw over to first base again? If so, will the throw make it there? More important is how he throws to the plate and if his cutter can return to it’s previous devilish form.

“It’s difficult when you don’t have these normal things to go to in different situations,” Maddon said. “Then you have to rely on the want-to of the guy on the mound and our guy has tremendous want-to. He was upset with himself all night.”