Derek Lilliquist wasn’t initially in the Nationals plans for 2018. Most people in the Nationals organization hoped Mike Maddux would return as pitching coach last season. General Manager Mike Rizzo had hired him separately from Dusty Baker two years ago, in part because of his reputation as an out-of-the-box thinker and relentless worker. When Baker went, the Nationals hoped they could negotiate a new deal with Maddux, but wanted to wait until they hired a new manager to fill those positions. By that time, Maddux had taken a job in St. Louis.
That job was vacant because the Cardinals decided to part ways with Lilliquist, a ground-ball-first type who had been on their staff for years. At the time, reports from St. Louis suggested the organization felt Lilliquist was too old school, less suited to a future loaded with data and defined by new ideas. But the Nationals hired him, effectively trading pitching coaches with St. Louis.
Lilliquist’s first year with the Nationals did not yield many definitive conclusions about his long-term fit with this team. He certainly did not land in West Palm Beach, Fla., and impose his will, and if his philosophy centers on ground balls, he did not force his pitchers to pitch to them. In fact, the Nationals' pitching staff finished 18th in groundball percentage (44 percent) in 2017. They finished 27th (41.2 percent) this season, a noteworthy difference when it comes to that statistic. That the Nationals did not suddenly transform in their new pitching coach’s image is no surprise.
The 52-year-old took a far more laid-back approach than Maddux, more of a “be yourself” approach that many pitchers said meant he would wait for them to approach him for advice, rather than fill their heads with unsolicited opinions. Maddux had been the opposite, players said. For some — generally the more bullheaded among them — Lilliquist’s approach fit well. Max Scherzer’s numbers, for example, did not suffer. Sean Doolittle, a dogged self-analyzer, had one of the best relief seasons in the majors this year. Jeremy Hellickson, a veteran whose crafty approach has been well-honed by now, bounced back with an impressive, if injury-marred, season in his first year in Washington.
But Gio Gonzalez, who generally benefits from a heavier hand, struggled, and cited help provided by teammates more than coaches as his impetus for change. Tanner Roark struggled mightily at times, too. Roark is prone to ups and downs, but has proven himself able to avoid the kind of spiral he experienced midsummer. When he pulled out of it, Roark explained that the trouble was mechanical in nature, mental in origin: He just needed to slow down. That it took him weeks to make the change cannot be a considered a direct indictment on coaching. Roark’s confidence had suffered. His demeanor had changed. He was battling himself and his body. Importantly, he had never experienced a stretch like that before.
Whatever the reasons — and there were certainly more than just one — Nationals' starters pitched to a 4.03 ERA, their highest mark since 2010, despite another elite season from Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg’s disabled list stints didn’t help, but Roark and Gonzalez both regressed as A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde struggled to progress. Exactly how much of that falls on a pitching coach is unclear.
Similarly, how much of Greg Holland’s reemergence can be credited to Lilliquist? When asked about that, Holland cited the need for a fresh start and a small mechanical tweak as most responsible for the turnaround. Koda Glover found his rhythm late in the season, and credited Lilliquist for giving him time to be himself, even as he struggled.
How much of Sammy Solis’s fall can be attributed to Lilliquist? He suffered from a heavy early season workload, a problem several relievers experienced and said exposed a need for better communication between Lilliquist, Dave Martinez and their pitchers. To a man, those relievers said communication improved as the season went on, in part because they began checking in directly with Martinez. Nationals relievers as a whole compiled a 4.05 ERA this season, a number inflated by the use of young, inexperienced pitchers in September, though they started the season with the deepest back end of the bullpen they have had in years. In 2017, the bullpen pitched to a 4.41 ERA.
As a whole, the Nationals pitching staff struck out fewer batters per nine innings in 2018 than 2017, but walked fewer batters per nine innings — both differences minimal. They allowed more home runs per nine innings in 2018 (1.18 in 2017, 1.23 in 2018). They left a greater percentage of runners on base in 2018 than in 2017. None of those numbers provide clear conclusions.
But in terms of ERA and wins, this was one of the worst pitching staffs in recent Nationals history — a reality that inspires questions about those who lead it. No one has suggested that Lilliquist’s job is in danger. In fact, Rizzo and Martinez have both said they anticipate the coaching staff being back intact in 2018. Yet should ownership or the front office decide something must change after this disappointing season, they might look at their pitching staff — forever the backbone of this franchise’s success — and see room for improvement. Perhaps Lilliquist is the man to lead that transformation.
Either way, the Nationals must decide what they want this staff to look like moving forward. Rizzo always says that nothing is possible without strong pitching. This year, his team’s pitching was not strong enough.