FORT MYERS, Fla. – For a guy who won 19 games, was in every Cy Young Award discussion, made the All-Star team for the first time and struck out 225 men for the second straight season, Jon Lester still sees plenty of room for improvement. And just as he methodically picks apart opponents every fifth day, he has a firm grasp on what he needs to do better.
When asked Wednesday afternoon in Fort Myers what he needed to do to take his game to another level, Lester was quick to reply: "Walks."
"Too many free passes last year," said the lefty, who walked a career-high 83 men last year, nearly one more per nine innings than he did in 2009.
It was one of the few bugaboos in an otherwise spectacular season. He walked four batters or more seven times after doing so five times the previous two years combined. It led to some high pitch counts, abbreviated starts and extra innings for the bullpen, which was often a death knell in 2010.
Amazing as it sounds for a guy who is so focused, so driven and so successful on the mound, Lester attributed the issue to losing his mental edge at times.
"Sometimes you get the first two outs of an inning and you think you're out of the inning and you're really not, and you walk a guy or [give up] a base hit, or a stupid base hit, just one that you weren't focused on," he said. "That's the main thing, working on that mental focus on every pitch, every hitter.
"It's all mental, just trying to keep that edge and trying to not be stupid messing around with guys … I'd rather give up more hits than walks."
There were actually nine starts in 2010 in which Lester had as many or more walks than hits.
If and when he gets that issue ironed out, Lester's checklist will be narrowed down to one little item, something for which he may not have an immediate answer. The 27-year-old has struggled notably early in the season, going 3-6 with a 4.76 ERA through April in his career. He began 2010 with an 0-2 record and an 8.44 ERA through three starts.
Lester said he has "tinkered with some things" this year to try to buck that trend, but isn't going to lose a lot of sleep on it.
"It is what it is," he said. "At the end of the season it all comes out in the wash … Obviously, I don't want to go out there and suck, nobody wants to do that. But like I said, it's something that I'm not worried about anymore. I know I'm going to get on a roll eventually. The earlier I can do it, great. If I can't, I'm still going to go out and compete."
That's not to say Lester won't have any extra motivation when the season begins. He indicated that his final start of 2010, which saw him give up eight runs in four innings at Chicago and remain stuck on 19 victories, left him with a "bitter taste" in his mouth.
He wasn't so much angry that he fell short of the 20-win milestone, but just hated ending a solid year on such a sour note.
"It's the last thing I remember," he said. "It took a little bit of time to get over it. It's a new season, move on, worry about some other things and try to do it all over again."
Only this time, he'll look to do it with fewer walks and a better April. If Lester can succeed at those two goals, the sky's the limit.