“I feel we’re a very process-oriented organization,” St. Louis Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak told reporters, as quoted by St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold, after deciding to part ways with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist in October of 2017.
“And when you’re thinking about where we are, and what we need to do moving forward, we felt that this was an opportunity to improve. Clearly when you look back at the success of our pitching, it’s been good. But I felt like the process was not ideal for future growth.”
Mozeliak said that the next pitching coach they hired, “has to understand modern strategy, modern analytics, and how we can leverage that to optimize our staff.”
Mike Maddux, who left the Washington Nationals after serving as Dusty Baker’s pitching coach for two seasons, ended up moving on to the Cardinals, and Lilliquist was hired to replace Maddux, joining long-time friend Davey Martinez’s first coaching staff after he’d landed his first gig as a big league skipper, after Baker was not re-signed.
After a season-plus in D.C., Lilliquist was relieved of his duties as the Nationals’ pitching coach last night, after the team avoided a sweep at the hands of the Cards in the series finale in the nation’s capital.
“We’ve let Derek Lilliquist go as our pitching coach,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo announced when he met with reporters after the finale with the Cards. “We’re going to replace him with Paul Menhart, our long-time Minor League pitching coordinator, 14 years in the organization, five years as our pitching coordinator in the minor leagues, and probably has touched each and every Nationals’ pitcher that’s ever hit the mound, and he’ll be taking over duties tomorrow in Philadelphia and we’re excited for him to start his major league pitching coach career.”
The decision to fire Lilliquist, both Rizzo and Martinez said, was not an easy one, or one they took lightly.
“The thought process was that we felt both the rotation and the bullpen — we thought that we had some flaws in there,” Rizzo said. “We thought that there were preparation issues there, and we thought that we wanted to get a new message and a new voice, and we felt really good about Paul’s delivery, the way he feels about this organization, and his knowledge both personally, and professionally, and mechanically of almost each and every one of our pitchers in the big leagues.”
“This is something that Rizzo and I discussed,” Martinez said.
“I think at this point we wanted a new voice, a new face, you know, someone to relay the message a different way. As you guys know, Derek is a good friend of mine, so this is tough.”
“We’ve got to do what’s best for this organization and for our team,” the manager added, “... and like I said, this wasn’t a decision that was made two days ago or two weeks ago, this is something that was thought out for a while. Needless to say, we’ve got some really good pitchers, our bullpen is doing well, but if you look, we’re still 10th in pitching out of 15 in the National League, so we have to get better.”
What will Menhart, who has been with the organization since 2005, and has served as the Minor League pitching coordinator since 2015, bring to the role?
“He’s got his own philosophies and his own ways of teaching and preparing, and it’s going to be very upbeat, hands-on, mechanical, analytical type of approach,” Rizzo said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him work at the big league level. I’ve seen him work for 14 years at the minor league and he’s been terrific.”
“It’s a fresh face, fresh voice, a guy that’s known our pitchers longer than I’ve known the pitchers,” Martinez said.
“He’s had them for a very long time in the minor leagues. He’s a guy that did everything in our minor league system, coached everywhere, was the minor league coordinator, knows the mechanics really well.
“So I think at this particular time, as we are getting younger, I think he’s a good fit.”
Why did they decide that Lilliquist wasn’t a good fit any longer?
“This is not about what Lilliquist did wrong, this is about what we can do to get us better,” Martinez said.
Menhart, the manager explained, “... brings a different kind of energy.”
“He’s positive, he’s a technician, he knows analytics, a lot of our pitchers here have worked with him throughout their whole minor league career, so I really feel that this is going to be a good thing.”
“We didn’t make this decision in a day, or weeks,” Rizzo reiterated, “... so this was something that Davey and myself have been keeping our finger on the pulse of.”
So Martinez was on board with the decision?
“Obviously these are all joint, cooperative decisions, yeah,” Rizzo said.
Lilliquist, the GM explained, didn’t necessarily agree with Rizzo and Martinez that there was a need for a change.
“I spoke with Derek,” Rizzo said, “[he] took it like a true champion, and he did not agree with the assessment and the decision, and I respect that, but took it like a professional.”
And how did the pitchers react to the news that their pitching coach for the last year-plus was relieved of his duties?
“I addressed the pitchers today,” Martinez said, “right after the game.”
“I want to make sure I’m up front with them, let them know what’s going on, and they were shocked, as I thought they would be. This wasn’t a decision based on any of them, they didn’t know anything was going on, and I explained to them what transpired, and I feel like they all know Paul really well and he’ll be a good addition to our staff.”
Rizzo was asked if this was a sign that Martinez’s future might be in question, but he gave the manager his support, in spite of the struggles early this season, which have them at 13-17 after 30 games, after an 82-80 campaign in 2018.
“I think that Davey is doing a great job, and I think that as we spoke earlier today, I think he’s got his finger on the pulse of that clubhouse,” Rizzo said.
“I think he’s got a finger on the pulse of that team, and the players respect him and play hard for him and we’re grinding through these tough days, shorthanded, and we’re playing hard and as we move on through the season we need to continue to play hard, play clean baseball, and try to win as many games as we can until our big boys come back.”