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In Search of the Missing (Pitching) Link

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In which we consider both the departure of Derek Lilliquist, and also a curious missing evolutionary step in modern pitching development.

St. Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

It’s been just over a week now since the Cardinals announced, at a year-end presser, that they would not be retaining the services of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley. On the surface, at least, it seemed like a surprising move, considering how successful overall the Cardinals’ pitching staffs have been over the past handful of years.

Consider: the St. Louis Cardinals, following the 2011 season, saw their longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, typically considered one of the two or three greatest pitching coaches of all time (depending upon what one thinks of Leo Mazzone, Dave Bamberger, Mel Stottlemyre, and Roger Craig as the group surrounding him, usually), depart from the organisation along with his compatriot Tony LaRussa. In the six years since, the Cardinals’ worst finish in terms of league ERA has been twelfth, in 2016. Most years they’ve been comfortably in the top ten in the majors in terms of run prevention. In general, the Redbird pitchers under the Lilliquist/Ilsley regime have been very successful, and in a way extremely familiar from the Dave Duncan era. Lots of groundballs, execute low in the zone, pitch to early-count contact. Not exactly rocket science, but it’s a successful formula.

However, in the course of making the announcement, and then answering questions regarding the change of direction afterward, John Mozeliak gave us a pretty open insight into why the decision was made to move away from Lilliquist.

Sure, it’s fairly vague, but it’s not hard to read between the lines here. The Cardinal organisation felt like Lilliquist — and, by extension, Ilsley — was not taking advantage of the information being provided him by the analytics types upstairs, and was not on board with the kind of forward-thinking agenda the organisation is pursuing.

A personal note: I’m actually more disappointed to see Ilsley go than Lilliquist; I had an opportunity to talk to Ilsley on a few occasions back when I was working for the RFT and he was coaching in the Cards’ minor league system, and I thought his philosophy toward pitching in general was excellent. I particularly liked his ideas about pitching mechanics and the teaching of same, but that was also quite a few years back now, and it doesn’t necessarily shock me to hear of a disconnect between the front office and field staff. Lilliquist and Ilsley both struck me as old-school guys (Lilliquist especially), who might not be all that quick to embrace a bunch of spreadsheet-driven data.

As to the specifics of what might be going on with moving on from the Lilliquist regime, there are several options. Lilliquist is cut, as I said earlier, from a very similar cloth as Dave Duncan, in terms of philosophy, and the central tenets of that philosophy revolve largely around pitching at the bottom of the zone and trying to generate groundball contact. In the past, that’s been a solid recipe for success; we’ve seen Ray Searage of the Pirates in recent years turn around multiple pitchers by preaching the benefits of pitching inside and working the bottom of the zone. Again, these aren’t revolutionary ideas; it’s the communication and implementation of those ideas that defines a pitching coach’s job.

However, while keeping the ball down, as a philosophical pillar, has been successful in the past, the game is changing. The so-called fly ball revolution has led to hitters modifying their swings in such a way as to create more of an upward angle of attack, and the result has been a change in the types of pitches that are effective. The great gains in offense over the past couple seasons have, in large part, come at the bottom of the zone, where previously pitchers were able to live with impunity. The uppercut swings of the new wave are geared toward getting pitches at the knees into the air; combine the new swing plane with a deliberate attempt on the part of MLB to pull the strike zone up slightly, from the bottom of the knee to somewhere closer to the kneecap itself, and you get a game where living at the bottom of the zone (which is now, you understand, not quite as low as it used to be), is much more dangerous these days.

If working at the bottom of the strike zone is a foundational idea for a given pitching coach, and suddenly we have reason to believe that it’s more important now than previously for pitchers to be able to work north and south, at both the top and bottom of the zone (or even just at the top, I suppose, though that still feels dangerously limiting), then the pitching coach is going to have to alter his philosophy. It’s not that the idea was wrong; it’s that the reality of the game has changed.

A pitching coach dogmatically committed to working one way and one way only is probably not going to survive long in an offensive environment where the realities of the past are in flux, as it appears they are today. So perhaps there was a disconnect between the analytics types and Lilliquist in terms of where each felt was the most effective part of the strike zone to target.

Disagreement on a low-zone vs high-zone approach — or perhaps a two-seam vs four-seam approach, potentially — is only one possible fracture point for the Cardinals and their erstwhile pitching coach. To me, the idea of a fundamental disagreement on the place of defensive shifts in the game seems to be a highly probable area of discord as well.

We’ve heard, on multiple occasions, that the Cardinal coaching staff is hesitant to employ modern defensive shifts, largely because they prefer to defer to their pitchers’ tastes. The most recent -- and one of the most galling — examples came just a few weeks ago, when Michael Wacha allowed two Anthony Rizzo singles in the same game, both of which went right to the area of the field where a second baseman would be playing in a shift. The shift, however, was not on, in spite of Rizzo being one of the most-shifted and most-shiftable hitters in the game, and so both balls turned into hits. Why was the shift not on? Because Wacha didn’t want it on, that’s why.

Now, far be it from me to ascribe motives to people, but I would be willing to bet the reason Wacha didn’t want the shift on is because, at some point in time in the past, he has made a pitch, gotten a grounder he thought was going to be caught, and then seen it go right through whatever area of the infield was opened up due to a shift. At which point, he mentally threw up his hands and decided the shift is useless, or worse. It’s the same kind of anecdotal nonsense we hear from broadcasters constantly — particularly the increasingly nightmarish radio crew, which the Cardinal organisation should frankly be embarrassed to have representing them — anytime the shift yields a hit. Failure through orthodoxy is invariably ignored; failure through unorthodox means must be stamped out at all costs. Never mind that we have hard data saying Anthony Rizzo hits it to this spot on this pitch 70% of the time; the pitcher doesn’t want the shift on, so it isn’t on.

Wacha has received a fair bit of criticism in various corners of baseball discussion; much of said criticism is, unfortunately, just as dogmatic and unhelpful as Rooney and Shannon bitching endlessly about how you leave yourself wide open to someone like Rizzo just flipping a grounder down the third base line, completely ignoring the fact that he never, ever does it, no matter how much you think he will. The criticism of Wacha goes something like this: “He needs to get with the program. They have spray charts, and it’s not his decision to make. His job is to pitch, and if he doesn’t like it then trade his ass for someone who does.”

The problem with that, of course, is that there really is a huge component of performance on the field that comes from confidence, and if a pitcher is constantly worried about the defensive alignment behind him, the chances he can commit to, and execute on, a pitch with 100% faith are compromised. We really could, I suppose, simply trade away anyone who doesn’t buy in to the plan immediately, but that seems like a good way to limit one’s pool of talent.

It would seem, rather, that the best way to deal with the situation of a pitcher who doesn’t buy into an idea like the shift is to figure out a better way to communicate the benefits to him. One of the biggest factors consistently credited in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ turnaround of several years ago was not the discovery or implementation of some new sabermetric principle(s), but a real dedication to communicating the advantages of certain existing principles to the coaches and players. It helps, of course, to have complete buy-in from a Clint Hurdle who realises his days in the job are numbered if he doesn’t adjust his frame of mind, but the Pirates specifically are also credited with creating a position that is essentially a stat nerd liaison within the clubhouse. They figured out that if you can communicate to the coaches and players not only what ideas you want them to implement, but why those ideas are important, and how they will benefit the players on the field, then you’ll have far more success getting those ideas put into effect.

And that’s where we potentially find another of our disconnects between the front office and the Lilliquist/Ilsley tandem. If Michael Wacha doesn’t want a shift put on behind him, is it because he doesn’t think the shift is worth it? Is it because he doesn’t like the way it looks when he glances behind him? Or is it because his coach hasn’t done a good enough job explaining why these are the spots on the field where we want the fielders to stand, and here’s the charts and graphs that say it’s a good idea? Perhaps Wacha would be unconvinced no matter what the argument, in which case maybe you should consider going in a different direction. But I tend to think that players, by and large, want to win, want to be successful, and if you find the right way to explain why this thing is going to make them successful — or at least help them be — they will embrace whatever it is you’re preaching.

We know that the shift, in general, works. And we know that the Cardinals shift less than almost any other team in baseball. Perhaps a new pitching coach, one more open to data-driven decisions and more interested in helping his pitchers understand why these are good things for them, could help move that in a more productive direction.

Finally, and most intriguingly to me, we have something else that Mozeliak mentioned, when asked about what sort of candidates he would be considering for the open staff spots. In his response, Mo called out modern strategy, modern analytics, and an ability to leverage those things to, “optimise our staff.”

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a very interesting little nugget.

To be fair, I should probably state that a lot of what follows is going to be complete speculation. Then again, most of this so far has already been speculation, so it’s not as if I’m departing the realm of facts for guesses. We’re just going to continue down the path of educated guesses a bit longer, really.

That phrase, optimise our staff, is an intriguing one, because as it stands currently, the Cardinals are a fairly traditional organisation in terms of how they’ve used pitchers in the past. There was, of course, the very forward-looking way in which Tony LaRussa deployed his pitching staff during the 2011 postseason, a tour de force of progressive aggression covered here as recently as yesterday, but that was the playoffs. And, as we’ve seen the last few years, the playoffs allow teams to throw the book out the window and try lots of weird things. We have an entire (imaginary) class of pitcher now — the “Andrew Miller Type” — thanks to the postseason being a place for wild and wacky pitching antics.

Even outside the postseason, though, we have seen teams moving away from the traditional pitching usage patterns. The Rays were one of the first clubs to really identify the times-through-the-order penalty, and really aggressively try to implement plans to avoid it. Pitchers get worse the more times hitters see them, and so if you simply don’t let hitters see a pitcher a third time, you can avoid some of the worst aspects of a pitcher’s performance.

I joked a moment or two ago about the Andrew Miller Type being entirely imaginary, but in reality, the only thing imaginary about the archetype is that no one is as good as Andrew Miller, and so he makes sort of a terrible representative of an idea. But the notion of the fireman reliever, that hilariously old-school relief archetype, has been coming for a good long while now. Bill James was talking about the way closers were being misused close to 20 years ago. We all understand, I think, the concept of using your best reliever in the biggest spot, even if it’s a non-save situation. The problem, of course, is that entirely human habit of saving your best bullet for the moment when you really, really, really need it, and often missing the chance to take your best shot as a result.

Even if the pace of change occasionally seems glacial, though, the fact is the changes are coming. Teams are becoming more aggressive and creative in the way they structure and use their pitching staffs, and I don’t think we’re going to be moving in the other direction anytime soon. Why? Because there’s a mountain of data suggesting there’s a better, more effective way to do it than the standard starter/reliever dichotomy, and teams are always going to be looking for better, more effective ways of playing the game. At some point in the near future, we are going to see a team implement a true piggyback in their rotation — or at least part of their rotation; probably the not-so-great part — and our best guesses at the moment suggest that plan will most likely be successful.

So all this talk of optimising the staff has me thinking of big ideas and potential paradigm shifts, is what I’m saying.

Which brings me to the final point I wanted to get to here today, which is a point only tangentially related to Derek Lilliquist and his ouster, but entirely related to the notions of modern analytics and tactics, so still well within the purview of this article.

That final point is something that I tend to think of as the missing link in all this modernisation of pitching staffs and breaking down of the previous strict definitions and delineations of roles. What do I mean by missing link? Well, it’s simple, really.

There is literally a missing component in this evolutionary process.

The evolutionary process is as follows: pitchers are less effective the more pitches they throw, and especially the more times they have to go through a lineup. Therefore, the most effective way to use a starting pitcher is going to be to limit the number of pitches he throws, but perhaps even more importantly, limit how many shots at him the opposition gets. Sure, that might mean you only ever let a hypothetical pitcher — let’s call him Michael W. No, that’s too obvious. We’ll call him M. Wacha — face eighteen batters in a game, so as to avoid the crash that comes when hitters come up against him a third time, but what if instead of seven pretty good innings you could get five great innings almost every time out? Wouldn’t 4-5 great innings from M. Wacha be preferable to seven innings of four-run ball? Well yeah, you might say. That would be better. And, for the most part, it appears MLB teams are thinking along those lines as well.

Here’s the problem: so you’re getting four and a third shutout innings from M. Wacha, then getting him out before things can start to go awry. Guess what? Baseball games are still nine innings long.

And that, to me, is the point where we really start to find this missing link. You see, anytime someone puts forth these kind of radical realignment ideas, the notion of something like the piggyback rotation, there is always an assumption that the piggyback rotation, even if only applied to two-fifths of the pitchers, has two components. One, the ‘starter’, who starts the game and gives you the best eighteen hitters he can. And two, the ‘reliever’, who then comes in and finishes out the fifth inning (or whatever), and bridges you through the sixth and seventh innings in order to get to your late-inning relief aces.

The problem is that the second guy there? He doesn’t exist. And that’s where a lot of this theory tends to fall down.

The specialisation of relief roles over the past 25-30 years, at least in part driven by the innovations of LaRussa himself in the mid- to late-80s in Oakland, has resulted in multiple relievers being carried by every team with very specific jobs. The ultimate example of this phenomenon, of course, is the LOOGY, the Left-handed One Out GuY (I hate that capital Y so fucking much, by the way), whose job is to come in, face one or occasionally two same-handed hitters, and then depart before players not subject to his crushing platoon advantage can get a crack at him. One-inning closers are only slightly less specialised. Ditto setup relievers of the eighth- and seventh-inning varieties. The move in baseball the past three decades has been to solve the problem of how to hold leads late in games by throwing volumes of arms at it. We’ve all seen Bruce Bochy manage a game in September with an extended roster; we all know what terrors lurk therein.

Now, though, this newest revolution has created a problem. If one accepts that starters get worse the longer they are in the game, and thus should probably not be in the game as long as they often are, then you have more and more innings all the time that must be filled by someone other than the starter who has been pulled in an attempt to avoid the downside. Thus, the need for that three-inning reliever I was talking about just a moment ago.

However, as of yet we have not seen this role really filled. Yes, we saw Terry Francona go to Miller for multiple innings early in the game last postseason, and thus was born the Andrew Miller Type, but that was limited exclusively to the playoffs. In the regular season, you couldn’t use Andrew Miller that way. He would burn out a third of the way through the season, most likely. This year, Miller appeared in 57 games, and threw 62.2 innings. That’s barely more than one inning per appearance. In 2016, he made it into 70 games and threw 74.1 innings. Again, we’re basically talking about one inning at a time.

And so for now, teams are filling this greater volume of innings by simply carrying more relievers. It’s the brute force approach of the LaRussa/Bochy parade of relievers taken to its logical extreme. If you need to cover five innings in a game, but only have single-inning relievers, then the answer is simple: just use five of them.

The problem with that, of course, is that using five relievers for five innings requires you to carry an inordinate number of fresh arms at all times. That’s how you end up with eight-man bullpens and managers still lamenting they don’t have enough guys rested and ready to go. It’s how you end up with desperately short benches cannibalised by the ‘pen.

At some point in time, if teams really want the paradigm of shorter, more effective starts backed up with effective relief innings to stick, they’re going to have to start developing that hybrid pitcher capable of handling 2-3 innings in a go who doesn’t yet really exist.

And this is part of where I wonder what was meant by optimising the staff when Johnny Mo was asked about the new direction. I’m not entirely just spitballing here; the Cardinals had several relief pitchers in their minor league system last year who threw multiple innings in a majority of their appearances. Mark Montgomery, the Cards’ minor league free agent pickup from the Yankees at the end of spring training, was one of the more notable examples; I noticed it at some point early in the season and commented on it, then promptly forgot to return and update things later. The final tally on Montgomery’s season in Triple A: 46 appearances, zero starts, 66.2 innings pitched. Now, that may not sound like a ton; after all, that’s not even a full 1.5 innings per appearance. But compare it to the ratio of Andrew Miller above; he’s collecting one extra out beyond three every ten outings or so. In that context, Montgomery throwing 4-5 outs per game seems much more noteworthy.

Nor was Montgomery the only pitcher used in this way. Josh Lucas threw 60 innings in 47 appearances. Arturo Reyes made 22 appearances, started 6 games, and ended up throwing 63 innings. Kevin Herget threw 82 innings in 35 appearances (12 starts). Now, to be fair, swingman duty is still a little more common in the minors than in the majors, so perhaps some of this is coincidental. But it also felt to me all season long like the relievers in Springfield and Memphis were being stretched out whenever possible. And really, if one were intent on trying to take full advantage of modern analytics and strategy by trying to move to more of a hybrid pitching staff, there would have to be some adjustments made to the players on their way up through the system, rather than simply rolling it out at the big league level and expecting everyone to jump on board immediately.

There’s also the matter of John Gant being on the Cardinals’ staff, and the fact that Gant himself seems almost perfectly suited for this kind of hybrid role. He has certain aspects of a starter, in terms of a varied-enough repertoire, plus one pitch that might grade out as a true plus if you squint a little (the changeup in this case, which is handy since it’s not really vulnerable to platoon splits), which would seem to suggest a quality reliever.

The real question here would seem to be just what this hybrid reliever looks like, and that’s honestly not an easy answer to give. The ideal workload would seem to be something like 2-3 innings at a time, 2-3 times a week. Now, obviously you can’t do the max in both of those columns all the time; nine innings a week for 25 weeks is 225 innings, and at that point you’re not only talking about a starter, but a really high quality one in all likelihood. Rather, you would be looking for an average of that throughout the season. Something, overall, in the neighbourhood of 4-5 innings per week on average, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, and probably liberal use of the 10-day DL a couple times a year.

Basically, what you would be trying to do would be taking something like the 180 innings you might have hoped for from M. Wacha in the past, which would be supplemented by 70 relief innings from a couple other sources, and move it to a more even timeshare. Say, 150 innings from M. Wacha, who serves as the starter, and then 120 from someone like Gant, who soaks up 2-3 innings every time Wacha goes out and throws 4-5. You get 4.2 from Wacha, 2.1 from Gant, and that’s the seven you might once have hoped for from your starter. It took an extra pitcher to get there, but the hope is that those seven innings are excellent, rather than ordinary, and you can easily bridge the gap to the late-inning guys. You end up with 270 innings from two pitchers, it’s just distributed differently than the 200 from the starter, 70 from a reliever split we might have seen previously.

Are the Cardinals going to try and implement some of these changes? Honestly, I have no idea. We do have other potential issues with Lilliquist and Ilsley in terms of their philosophies which don’t require radical roster restructuring to be controversial. I personally think the shifting could be a big issue, as could the actual nuts and bolts game planning. That’s why I’ve gone on record as saying I hope the Cards bring in Jim Hickey, late of the Tampa Bay Rays; he’s one of the more notably data-driven coaches in the game, and his specialty is getting pitchers to work hard fastballs up in the zone effectively. It’s exactly the sort of new message I feel the organisation could use.

But honestly, if Mozeliak’s stepping down from the day to day GM role was about finding a new edge, or trying to figure out where things went wrong, then it would be far from the most shocking thing to see the Cardinals try to get ahead of the curve on hybridising pitching roles to try and gain an edge on the competition again. You probably don’t want to take innings away from Carlos Martinez, obviously, but with a pitcher like Wacha, who struggles so badly as he turns the lineup over, perhaps committing to some sort of non-traditional innings-sharing role could be an advantage to gain.

The fact is, we won’t really know what direction the Cardinals are going to take for awhile now, and even once the market opens up we may be waiting awhile for deals to come together. But this is an organisation which feels like it has fallen behind, to the point of radically restructuring the major league coaching staff. And that is, I think we all understand, a very strange place for a Cardinal team to find itself. The Redbirds are not exactly backed into a corner here, but they are seemingly motivated to make some relatively drastic changes.

The personnel is always the first step, and I believe the Cardinals have the personnel in various places throughout the system. The second step is finding the people to implement the plan, and that is the crossroads at which they currently find themselves.

They clearly didn’t believe Derek Lilliquist and Blaise Ilsley were any longer the men to do that implementing. Now, does that mean the organisation had lost faith in their adventurers? Or does it mean these are big new ideas coming down the pipeline that need new voices behind them?

Only time will tell, I suppose. It’s certainly been an interesting offseason so far.