derek lilliquist hits center stage

Mar 1, 2012; Jupiter, FL. USA; From left St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist (left) , pitcher Chris Carpenter (middle) and pitcher Adam Wainwright (right) watch live batting practice during spring training at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

the VEB annual is finally available at the kindle store; if you’ve been waiting to order it from there, here’s the ordering page. thanks to one and all who’ve purchased the guide so far, and to all who have provided feedback. i’m keeping a suggestion file for the ’13 annual . . . .

one article that got dropped in the transition from print to e-pub was a piece about derek lilliquist. we did a similar piece back in the 2010 MSP, writing about incoming batting coach mark mcgwire. lilliquist is a lot less familiar to cardinal fans than big mac was, and he’s replacing a beloved figure (whereas mcgwire was stepping in for the unpopular hal mcrae). he also has a longer coaching track record than mcgwire, who hadn’t worn a uniform in almost a decade when he joined la russa’s staff in 2010. he worked with jason motte early in his conversion from catcher to moundsman and formed relationships with a number of the cards’ young pitchers—including lynn, salas, sanchez, dickson, and ottavino—while serving as the memphis pitching coach in 2010. it’s noteworthy that dave duncan and tony la russa specifically requested that lilliquist be assigned to memphis that season.

he has been in the cardinal system for a decade now, and will be joined by a bullpen coach (dyar miller) who has an even longer history as a pitching instructor in the st louis farm system. between the two of them, they’ve formed relationships with nearly every young arm who’s in the big leagues or likely to arrive soon. what follows is a quick-n-dirty version of the article that might have appeared in print (or in the e-pub) under other circumstances.

PLAYING CAREER

lilliquist starred at the university of georgia during the 1980s, leading the bulldogs to their first-ever college world series in 1987. he struck out 184 batters in 131 innings as a junior, and DH’d between starts; he batted .301 with 19 homers. his coach called him "a real leader" and said, "his mental approach to the game is unbelievable." with georgia facing elimination in the regional tournament, lilliquist took the mound against fordham and purt near threw a no-hitter; came up just four outs short. he started georgia’s first game in the CWS but lost 3-2 to stanford and black jack mcdowell; the bulldogs lost 5-4 the next day and were out of the tournament.

baseball america named lilliquist its college pitcher of the year. he was drafted 6th overall by the braves, behind mcdowell (5th), mike harkey (4th), and willie banks (3rd). ken griffey jr was the number one overall selection. the cardinals selected lilliquist’s teammate, cris carpenter (not the DNGAF wild man, but this guy) 14th overall that year.

despite the gaudy strikeout total, lilliquist didn’t have overpowering stuff, topping out at 91 or so with his fastball. but he had pinpoint control, wasn’t afraid to come inside to right-handers, and could throw any pitch in any count. scouts likened him to 1980s southpaws such as bruce hurst, john tudor, and scotty mcgregor. (you can also see some parallels with jaime garcia, who worked with lilliquist for the first time in 2011.) he held out until august, signing with the braves for $165K, and squeezed in five starts before the minor league season ended.

the following spring, braves manager chuck tanner mused openly about the possibility that lilliquist would open the season in the big-league rotation.

they had finished dead last in the NL in pitching the previous year and 10th (out of 12 teams) the year before that. they already had begun a mound youth movement, breaking in tom glavine and pete smith late in 1987. glavine and smith both spent the whole 1988 season in atlanta’s rotation, and john smoltz joined them midway through; they moved up to 11th in ERA that year but finished with a catastrophic 54-106 record, their worst in more than 50 years.

lilliquist was sheltered from the carnage, spending the whole year at AAA richmond, where he made 28 starts. i’ll just post his stat line, and you’ll immediately understand what type of pitcher he was:

GS IP H BB SO HR
28 170.2 179 36 80 11

that’s a strikeout rate of 4.2 k/9 . . . . against minor leaguers. he did post a 3.38 era and exhibited his trademark control (1.9 walks per 9), which gave him a creditable 2.22 k/bb ratio in spite of the miniscule k rate. but it was now clear that lilliquist’s game hadn’t translated seamlessly from college to the pros; whatever he’d used to rack up huge strikeout totals at georgia didn’t work against professional hitters.

he made the team in 1989, joining smoltz, glavine, and smith in the atlanta rotation; all four were 23 years old or younger. marty clary and zane smith, who shared the fifth slot, were the old men of the group at 27 and 28, respectively. the atlanta pitching coach that season was bruce dal canton, who’d worked with many of those young braves in the minors and worked his way up through the system along with them to the major league level. while leo mazzone gets all the credit for molding those young hurlers, glavine and smoltz had their initial success under dal canton.

lilliquist had some success under him too. his stats in the NL were almost identical to the ones he’d posted at triple A the previous year—4.3 k/9, 1.8 bb/9—and eerily similar to glavine’s (4.4 k/9, 1.9 bb/9) in 1989. the two left-handers’ eras were very close, too (3.68 glavine, 3.97 lilliquist), as were their hr rates. it makes for an interesting comparison, two 23-year-old left-handers pitching for the same team with very similar component stats. the only real difference between them? glavine yielded only 8.3 hits per 9 innings, while lilliquist yielded 11.0—a frighteningly high total, and nearly 3 full hits a game higher than glavine. they were allowing balls in play at almost exactly the same rate, so it’s tempting to argue that lilliquist was merely less lucky than glavine. but i don’t buy that. given that they had the same defense behind them all season, that’s too big a gap to attribute entirely to luck. lilliquist must have been yielding harder contact. but luck probably does explain part of the gap; glavine’s batting average allowed on grounders that year was just .168, which is 60 points better than average and a full 100 points better than lilliquist’s average on grounders.

it’s not as if lilliquist had a bad year. on the contrary, he finished fourth in the rookie of the year polling, one spot ahead of andy benes. he got outstanding results in his first 10 starts—a 2.21 era, less than a hit per inning—but he induced nearly two flyball outs for every grounder, not usually a formula for long-term success. the league figured him out, and he got manhandled over his last 20 starts—4.99 era, .846 opponent ops, 26 percent line drive rate. the final pitching line was still pretty good—30 starts, 8-10 record, 3.97 era. the braves lowered their team era by half a run and improved to 63-97.

the boston red sox spent most of the off-season courting him. they’d fallen in love with that type of lhp, after having much success with hurst, tudor, and bob ojeda in the previous decade. the sox had actually drafted lilliquist out of high school in 1984 (15th round) and were willing to part with lee smith, but the clubs couldn’t work out a deal and lilliquist stayed put. he absorbed a fearsome beating to open the year—same high h/9 rate, higher walk and home run rates, and a 6.28 era over 11 starts. the braves sent him to triple A and called up steve avery, and a month later they traded him to the padres for mark grant, who wasn’t exactly lee smith. the braves went on to the world series the following year, while lilliquist returned to triple A and was converted into a reliever.

the indians claimed him off waivers in 1992, and lilliquist excelled for two years as a late-inning specialist—2.01 era, 16 saves, and total of 4.5 WAR. his pitching coach there was rick adair, a fellow southerner and southpaw who’d never pitched in the bigs. (adair’s uncle was art fowler, who was joined at the hip to billy martin and helped shape a lot of successful big league careers.) lilliquist’s salary increased to $1.3 million; he was only 27 years old and presumably had a long career ahead of him. but he pitched poorly in 1994, his final year before free agency, and latched on as a LOOGY in 1995 with the red sox, for whom he pitched even worse. they released him midyear, and the dodgers picked him up but stashed him at triple A. he spent most of 1996 with the reds’ triple A team, and that was that; career over. he was 30 years old.

he compressed a pretty wide range of experience into a fairly short playing career. in addition to having some success both as a starter and reliever, lilliquist was part of one of the best homegrown pitching staffs of the last generation. he also emerged as a leader on the bereaved cleveland pitching staff in 1993, after the stunning death during spring training of pitchers tim crews and steve olin in a boating accident. his career ERA+ in 483 big-league innings was 97+; average. he won 25 games and saved 17.

COACHING CAREER

lilliquist went into coaching immediately upon his retirement, starting with a high school team in vero beach, florida, where he was head coach from 1998 through 2001. i haven’t had time to suss out the connection that brought him to the cardinals in 2002; often there’s a former teammate or coach involved, but i can’t identify any such who were in the st louis organization circa 2002. in any case, he started out at johnson city and moved up the following season to peoria (low class A). in 2004-05 he worked at palm beach in the florida state league, coached at springfield in 2006, returned to PB in 2007, and then ran the cards’ extended spring training complex in jupiter for 2008 and 2009. in 2010 he was returned the dugout with memphis, and last year he became the cards’ bullpen coach—and, ultimately, the fill-in pitching coach during dave duncan’s absence in august and september.

although he has been in the cardinal system for a full decade now, he’s had a fairly nondescript tenure; i can’t point to a large number of players he’d helped to develop who went on to have an impactful big-league career. he’s crossed paths with a lot of andy cavazoses and dennis doves and mark worrells over the years, the fringiest of fringe major leaguers; that probably is less lilliquist’s fault than it is the consequence of working in a system that only recently ended a long slump in the procurement of pitching talent.

one of his most noteworthy early pupils was blake hawksworth, who pitched for lilliquist at JC and peoria during 2002-03 while blossoming from an unheralded draftee (28th round) into the #1 prospect in the organization (and top 50 prospect in all of baseball, per BA). when hawksworth returned from surgery in 2006, he again pitched for lilliquist in 2006 and credited the coach for helping him regain his confidence and mechanics.

lilliquist also worked with jason motte early in his transition from catcher to pitcher. he only had motte briefly, during a nine-game stop at palm beach in 2007, but he made an impression, teaching motte a new grip for the two-seamer as the fledgling hurler groped to master an off-speed pitch. last year, as a member of the big-league staff, lilliquist got motte to stop "guiding" that pitch and just haul off and chuck it—full effort, same as a standard fastball.

in his lone year at memphis (2010), he had a few quiet triumphs. under lilliquist’s guidance, adam ottavino (whom lilliquist also worked with at high A palm beach) chopped his walk rate in half, pitching well enough to earn a callup to the big leagues. brandon dickson emerged as a potentially useful spare part for the big league staff; he previously had been nothing more than an organizational arm who was asked to do nothing more than fill out rotations in the minors. pj walters made significant strides in his third tour of duty at AAA, cutting his walk rate by 25 percent, and lance lynn made some adjustments after a brutal introduction to triple A. fernando salas and eduardo sanchez were on that staff too, as was adam reifer.

looking over his 10 years in the system, you can’t say that lilliquist is a miracle worker. he doesn’t have a stable of apprentices who’ve gone on to big league stardom, nor any signature outlook (a la dave duncan, tom house or leo mazzone). but you can say that he’s steeped in the organizational philosophy that duncan, mark riggins, and others have built over the last couple of decades. i personally like the fact that lilliquist was present at the birth of the braves’ great smoltz-glavine rotation, which propelled atlanta to a 15-year run of dominance. all the braves’ great young hurlers went through ups and downs as they transitioned to the majors, but the organization was patient with them. i think that perspective will stand lilliquist in good stead as prospects like shelby miller, carlos martinez, tyler jenkins, et al move into the big leagues.

the cardinals have a baseball game today against the florida marlins; jake westbrook will hurl, and the eight presumed regulars will back him. carlos beltran is batting second; love the idea.

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