Therefore, even the best of the best are always striving for something more. Such is the case with Jon Lester. The 27-year-old already finished fourth in Cy Young voting last season but still isn't content to rest on his laurels.
Lester made strides in just about all facets of his game in 2010. He was 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA and struck out 225 men for the second straight season. However, a glance at some of his peripheral numbers revealed one major issue, at least in the eyes of Lester.
"Walks," Lester said during spring training when asked what needs to improve upon in 2011. "That's the main thing. Too many free passes last year. Too many long innings, too many two-out walks that just add pitches that aren't needed. That's an extra inning, an extra arm out of the bullpen."
The assessment wasn't just Lester's imagination. He walked 83 batters in 2010, and his walk rate soared from 2.8 per nine innings to 3.6. The lefty admitted there isn't anything he can do physically to rectify the issue. What he can do is make a renewed commitment to focus on the mound, a slightly odd statement given Lester's intense nature.
That commitment was part of Lester's offseason goal-setting initiative, an activity conducted by most ballplayers as they look for ways to improve. In the "real world," even though most adults do not have seasons and offseasons, establishing a set of goals can be critical. Whether producing a daily list of chores to accomplish before bed, or setting long-term career aspirations, the process of laying out what needs to be done to reach the next level is well worth the time.
"Goal setting is a form of strategic thinking," says Jim Rodrigue, a psychologist with the Transplant Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "It's not enough to set goals. You must develop a road map for reaching the goals as well as a plan for evaluating performance along the way."
Rodrigue notes that every Fortune 500 company has a strategic plan with clear goals, performance metrics and an inherent adaptability to meet unexpected obstacles.
"Elite athletes are not much different," he notes.
Lester, for his part, took time this offseason to think about what plagued him in an otherwise spectacular campaign. He knows that with just a slight reduction in free passes he could reach a status reserved for the true elites of the game.
"Mental," Lester said, explaining which aspect of the pitching process he needs to fine-tune. "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. 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."
Lester issued five walks in one game three times in 2010. The last time came in the season finale — a four-inning, eight-run stinker at Chicago that prevented him from hitting the magical 20-win plateau and effectively eliminated him from Cy Young Award contention. The previous two times he walked five and the four times he walked four also were aggravating, but having his biggest bugaboo rear its ugly head just before the offseason gave Lester even more of a reason to establish his goals for 2011.
"It was the last start, it's the last thing I remember," he said. "A little bitter taste in my mouth this offseason. It took a little time to get over it."
Lester has gotten off to a rough start in 2011, going 0-2 with four walks over 12 1/3 innings. But staying winless isn't part of the Red Sox ace's plan.