The decision to part ways with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist wasn’t an easy one for anyone involved, though, according to both Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez it was a decision they had considered for some time before making the final determination to go a different direction.
“We didn’t make this decision in a day, or weeks,” Rizzo told reporters after they made the official announcement that they’d replaced Lilliquist with the organization’s Minor League pitching coordinator, Paul Menhart.
“This was something that Davey and myself have been keeping our finger on the pulse of.”
Martinez said it was particularly difficult decision because of his own personal history with Lilliquist, who came on as his first pitching coach last season.
“Gosh, I’ve known him for a very long time,” Martinez said.
“We played against each other for a very long time, known him from across the field when he was with St. Louis, talked, so this is hard.”
Meet new pitching coach Paul Menhart. pic.twitter.com/PkUAarVH9q— Nationals on MASN (@masnNationals) May 3, 2019
Menhart had a long history with the organization. He joined the Nationals in 2005, the first season they moved to D.C. from Montreal, and served as pitching coach at each level from Low-A to Triple-A between 2006-2014 before becoming the pitching coordinator for all of the affiliates in 2015.
“Fourteen years in the organization,” Rizzo said. “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.”
“He’s a guy that did everything in our minor league system,” Martinez added.
“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.”
When Menhart met with reporters before the start of this weekend’s series in Citizens Bank Park, he said he planned to work with the Nationals’ staff to figure out what they need from him, and what he can do to help guide them through the rest of the season.
“I’m going to let them teach me how to be a big league pitching coach, to be honest with you,” he explained, “because they’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m going to lean on them and be available as often as possible for whatever they need and we’ll go from there. Each day is going to be a learning experience for me. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of the analytics side of baseball, I appreciate all the knowledge that is given to us on a daily basis. We’re going to incorporate that with our advance reports, and get these guys as prepared as possible to go in there and compete.”
Rizzo said he thought Menhart’s philosophy, knowledge of mechanics, and demeanor will fit well.
“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, and like I 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 level and he’s been terrific.”
“I know Paul well,” he added. “I know his philosophy well, and I think that his demeanor and his philosophy will fit well with the guys on that staff and I’m looking forward to it.”
Menhart said his philosophy is focused throwing as few pitches as you can in each at bat, getting soft contact, and pounding the zone.
“I’m a big believer in getting guys out as quickly as possible,” Menhart said. “Three or four pitches or less. I think that’s something that we’ve got to probably incorporate a little better, is attacking the zone and forcing people to hit the ball softly. A wise man told me that’s the job of a pitcher, and that’s something that I’ve tried to teach all of the pitching coaches down in the minor leagues, and moving them up to this level, is don’t lose that fight, that ability to challenge hitters.”
Rizzo acknowledged that the decision was made, at least in part, to get a new voice, and new message for the Nationals’ pitchers, while also explaining that he thought that there were “preparation issues” which needed to be addressed, and Menhart said that using all the information that’s available these days will be something he focuses on.
“Everybody’s got the information now,” he explained. “It’s now recognizing what are those guys doing, recently, the opposing hitters, and focusing on that. Taking what they’ve done historically, and then moving forward towards how are we going to attack them now. What are they doing as of late? Is this information going to be helpful to continuing to do it?
“Everybody else is trying to do it, and if they’re having success, why change? But if they’re not having success then we’re going to have to make an adjustment.”
The Nationals, as a team, weren’t having success early this season, with a 13-17 record in 30 games before the move, so they made an adjustment. Will it pay off down the road? Is it the last change that will be made if things don’t start to turn around in a hurry?
Martinez said he liked working with Menhart in their first game together thought they lost in the end.
“I loved it,” the manager said.
“He was intense. He was in the game. He was asking questions. We were on the same page, so I liked it. The conversations were real good all game.”