Derek Lilliquist wasn’t unemployed for too long. A little over a month after the St. Louis Cardinals parted ways with the pitching coach, Washington’s Nationals hired Lilliquist as part of Dave Martinez’s staff. Not a bad landing spot.
“This is probably — 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 told reporters earlier this month when he spoke at Nationals WinterFest. “It’s a team built to win.”
Following an eight-year career as a major league starter and reliever, Lilliquist spent 16 seasons in the Cardinals’ organization, the last six as the Cards’ pitching coach.
“During his five full seasons as the Cardinals’ pitching coach (2013–17),” the Nats noted in a press release on Lilliquist’s hiring, “St. Louis’ hurlers posted a 3.59 ERA,” with 2015’s, “2.94 ERA, the team’s lowest mark since 1969 and the lowest in the majors since 1988.”
Lilliquist’s philosophy as a pitching coach and what he’ll be preaching when things get underway in Spring Training?
“It’s controlling the counts, staying in positive pitching counts, trying to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible, because as you know, the home runs are way up, and there’s not homers on the ground. So utilizing the whole box, the top part of the strike zone for guys, and the bottom of the strike zone.”
Lilliquist was asked for his thoughts on how he’d instruct his pitchers to counter the launch angle revolution and the trend towards uppercut swings, in an era that’s seen more and more home runs leaving the park.
“I feel like the swing path right now is like mid-thigh,” he explained, “... so there is room from the bottom to under... down under, 17 inches underneath the plate, or 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, but now the trend is going more mid-thigh with the bat path and we pitch to the top and we pitch underneath.”
“Ideally you want to keep the ball on the ground,” Lilliquist continued, “but there are mishits up in the strike zone, but yes, the ball is going further, and leaving the park more frequently, but the big thing is mishits, we want to create mishits, whether it’s affecting balance or timing, we want to create mishits and that’s the bottom line.”
Lilliquist is inheriting a veteran staff that had two of the top three finalists for the NL Cy Young award last season. So how will he approach handling veteran starters?
“Give them the ball and watch them pitch,” he joked.
“We have a good combination of veterans and young guys, and everybody learns from each other, and I’m here to do whatever it takes to get the last out in the last game.”
As good as the Nationals’ starters have been the last few seasons, there are still things that Lilliquist believes he can teach them.
“Everybody looks to get a little better, that’s the nature of the game,” he said. “Leo Mazzone, back in my days with the Braves, was the guy that taught me my breaking ball, and I still use his wisdom and various other pitching coaches, and if guys like to tinker, which everybody does, we play around.”
The lessons he took from Mazzone?
“Competition, learning to deal with failure, which is a real part of the game. I never looked at it as a game of failure, but it’s always a game of opportunity, so those are the things that Leo taught me, and most importantly a breaking ball.”