MESA, Ariz. — It might not have risen to national fame like the #Bryzzo bromance between Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, but the relationship between pitcher Jon Lester and catcher David Ross was vitally important in the Chicago Cubs‘ championship journey.
Other than a handful of starts over the past four years, Ross was Lester’s personal catcher — including for a relief stint in Game 7 of the World Series. Their brotherly relationship helped Lester to a second-place finish in Cy Young voting in 2016. But to repeat that success, the three-time world champion will need to find a comfort level with a new backstop, as Ross retired at season’s end and handed the catching duties to ultra-talented 24-year-old Willson Contreras.
“I don’t want Willy to try and be me,” Ross said recently. “The goal is for him to be better than me. I told him here is my cell phone number. Call me if you have any questions.”
Ross was in uniform at the start of spring training — as a member of the Cubs’ front office. He’s available 24/7 if Contreras wants help, but the relationship between catcher and pitcher needs to develop over time.
“Ross and I didn’t just jump in and click,” Lester said. “It took a few starts to hammer a few things out. That’s all it comes down [to]: time on the mound and time behind the plate.”
Ross was behind the plate for 89 of Lester’s career starts in the regular season and a handful more in the playoffs. Lester’s career 2.75 ERA with Ross behind the plate is second only to that of Derek Norris (2.35), who caught Lester only 11 times. There’s no mistaking that they had a bond — though both players downplay it.
“Ross and I didn’t reinvent the wheel,” Lester said. “The ability to go to a Plan B is where we clicked. I saw Willy do that last year with everyone else. I don’t think it’s going to be any problem.”
It took time for Contreras to learn how to execute a game plan, and now his goal is to be better when things aren’t going well for his pitcher. That learning process began in his first start with the temperamental John Lackey on the mound.
“He liked to work fast, and the game was going really fast for me,” Contreras recalled. “When we had some trouble, I couldn’t slow him down because I couldn’t slow down myself. But the next start, I was much better at it.”
The Cubs are counting on their “pitching infrastructure” to help Contreras reach that next level. Catching coach Mike Borzello, bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Chris Bosio have garnered rave reviews for getting the most out of their players. Ross thinks it’s Lester’s job as well.
“It’s Jon’s responsibility to bring along Willy,” he said. “He and Lackey have all those rings, so they know how to do it.”
Contreras has a ring as well, so even though he’s entering his first full year in the big leagues, he has already been on the biggest stage — just not much with Lester. Contreras caught three innings of Lester last season, and that resulted in five runs crossing the plate, including two home runs. But they didn’t know each other. Lester might not be unique in what he throws, but he’s a feel pitcher, and he and Ross often used that to their advantage after testing the opposition in the first inning of games. Then the adjustments came.
“I need to learn how he likes to work,” Contreras said. “I’m there to make him comfortable.”
Already Contreras is asking questions of his battery mate, as the Cubs not surprisingly paired the two for Lester’s first couple bullpen sessions.
“I threw a side at like 45 mph, and he was asking how he was setting up and if he was in the right place and all that stuff,” Lester said. “He’s ready to go. I don’t think there will be any issues at all.
“Willson is a smart kid and wants to get better and is eager to please. He has all the attributes. There won’t be much of a learning curve.”
If there are any bumps in the road, Ross is waiting in the wings to help.
“Yeah, I want to figure things out for myself, and if I have something to ask him [Ross], I’ll ask him,” Contreras said. “But I want to build this relationship [with Lester].”
All parties agree that experience is about the only thing holding Contreras back. His rocket arm will come in handy, as Lester can have trouble keeping runners from stealing. But already Contreras has taken after his former mentor in back-picking runners, and the young catcher is slowly developing a reputation as someone you don’t run on.
But there is a lot more to catching than throwing runners out. Don’t be surprised if it’s a little rough at first.
“It’s a growth process for Willy,” Ross said. “And the hard times create the relationship with the pitcher, so when the battle gets heated, you’re able to come out on top. It’s a feel thing back there. No matter what I say, it just takes experience.
“We had success because we worked together a lot, and Jon is a great pitcher. Too much gets made out of all that stuff about me and Jon. Contreras will be better than me.”