The end of the 2017 baseball season brought about an unusual game of musical chairs among pitching coaches. No fewer than six clubs were in search of a fresh set of eyes to oversee their pitching staffs at the same time. And after it was all said and done, Derek Lilliquist, the Washington Nationals’ hire, might have won.
“As a pitching guy, this is probably the best spot to be, considering the starters we have and the bullpen we have in place already,” Lilliquist said. “It’s a team built to win.”
Lilliquist is with the Nationals because the St. Louis Cardinals dismissed him a couple of days after their season ended short of the playoffs with a disappointing 83-79 record. Later in the month, a week after the Nationals were eliminated from the postseason, Washington announced Manager Dusty Baker would not return and his coaching staff’s contracts also expired. That meant pitching coach Mike Maddux was a free agent. The Cardinals pounced. In the end, the clubs essentially traded pitching coaches. It’s the closest the Nationals have come to a trade in an otherwise tranquil offseason.
Lilliquist’s first assignment is getting acquainted with his pitching staff, but that won’t happen until spring training. When Nationals pitchers were asked what they knew about the 51-year-old Lilliquist last month at Winterfest, they admitted not much. Most had talked to him for the first time just that weekend. It was early.
“I have my routines,” Max Scherzer said. “I know what I’m trying to accomplish. I know what I need to do to get ready for spring training. The fun with your pitching coach really doesn’t start until about June when you’ve had a few bad starts and he’s made a few bad decisions and you’ve made a few bad decisions and you can start placing blame on each other.”
Lilliquist’s pitching philosophy isn’t revolutionary: Stay in positive counts and try to keep the ball on the ground because, as he pointed out, home runs aren’t hit on the ground. Simple enough. But for Lilliquist, who was the pitching coach in St. Louis for six seasons, that doesn’t necessarily mean keeping the ball down in the strike zone — not in the age of uppercut hacks. Lilliquist explained the most common swing path in baseball is now mid-thigh — the product of batters increasingly trying to hit the ball in the air at all costs. The philosophy switch has produced sky-high home run totals and strikeout rates — and an exploitable hole above the strike zone.
“It used to be that guys were better hitters up in the strike zone and you wanted to stay in the bottom of the zone,” said Lilliquist, who pitched in the majors across eight seasons. “But now the trend is to go more mid-thigh with the bat path, and you pitch to the top and underneath.”
A pitching coach can only do so much, but Cardinals pitchers allowed 1.14 home runs per nine innings last season — the fourth-lowest rate in baseball. The Nationals weren’t far off at 1.18 home runs per nine, good for eighth. They seemingly made the proper adjustments to the air ball revolution with an increased number of high fastballs — most notably from Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, starters who live in the low-90s and yet found some success upstairs.
“It just takes practice,” Lilliquist said. “Guys that have good four-seam fastballs can get the ball up in the strike zone without maximum power. Not even a [98-mph] guy — you can have a 92 guy that can pitch up in the strike zone.”
Lilliquist will preach that and other theories to his new pitching staff. But he also recognizes he is working with a proven, veteran group of hurlers — a group that includes the two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and last season’s third-place finisher. Sometimes it’ll be best to let them figure it out.
“Give them the ball,” Lilliquist said, “and watch them pitch.”
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