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Bucking the Trend with Derek Lilliquist

While pitching staffs around the league fought fire with fire, the Cardinals ex-pitching coach stood by his philosophy

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

There exists an alternate universe where I'm currently writing about last night's NL Wild Card Game between the Cardinals and Diamondbacks. There also exists an alternate universe where I look ahead to the NL Central champion Cardinals and their NLDS matchup against the Nationals.

And then we turn to reality, where St. Louis is deprived of postseason baseball for the second consecutive season.

Needless to say, changes of some capacity will occur this winter. While it appears Mike Matheny will return for 2018 (audible sigh) and the future of the Cardinals roster remains uncertain, it was announced on Tuesday that bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist would not have their contracts renewed. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that "Mozeliak said that they want to rethink the strategy of pitching use and have a pitching coach that is open to the data available and some modern views of how pitchers should be deployed." Although it may sound as if Lilliquist's departure had nothing to do with his groundball doctrine, Mozeliak also noted that he "felt like the process [for our pitchers] was not ideal for future growth."

Major League Baseball smashed its 17-year-old record with 6,105 home runs this season. For the tenth consecutive year, the league set all-time highs for both strikeouts and average fastball velocity. (40,104 and 93.6 mph, respectively.) What I'm getting at is this: current-day baseball is a greater battle between power and power than at any other point in the sport's history. To combat this, pitchers are increasingly challenging opposing batters with elevated fastballs–and to a certain degree of success, especially compared to the previous home run surge. While the league average OBP in 2000–the height of the steroid era–was .345, an increase in swings-and-misses held the 2017 mark down to .324. Consequently, 2017's .321 wOBA finished 20 points below 2000's record .341. Long story short: teams have utilized the luxury of having pitchers with better raw stuff.

That brings us back to Lilliquist. We begin with 2014, the last full season before the baseball itself was allegedly "juiced". The home-run-to-fly-ball rate (HR/FB) was all the way down to 9.5% that year. When scaling the percentage of Cardinals pitches up in the zone (using Baseball Savant's strike zone map pictured below) to league average, we find what I will call their EP+. Just like wRC+, 100 is average with a number above 100 indicating a higher percentage of elevated pitches.

St. Louis Cardinals EP+ by Season

Season EP+ EP% NL Rank MLB Rank MLB Avg. HR/FB%
Season EP+ EP% NL Rank MLB Rank MLB Avg. HR/FB%
2014 109.11 33.89% 2nd 4th 9.5%
2015 103.41 30.34% 5th 13th 11.4%
2016 97.47 28.50% 7th 16th 12.8%
2017 95.79 30.52% 12th 22nd 13.7%

Not only have the Cardinals been "pitching to contact" (as opposed to testing hitters upstairs) more frequently compared to the rest of the league, their raw elevated pitch percentage (EP%) was actually higher before the home run spike began. However, what appears to be occurring here is not a major shift in the organization's pitching philosophy. Rather, adjustments made by the 29 other clubs are what dragged down the Cardinals' EP+. Under pitching coach Carl Willis, who took the position after Juan Nieves was fired midway through 2015, the Boston Red Sox raw EP% shot up 9.23% from 2014 to 2017, in which time the Red Sox ERA- and FIP- improved by 18 and 16, respectively. Of course, Boston has assembled a much more talented roster in the past few years, but their willingness to adapt has certainly had a nonzero effect on their recent success. Meanwhile, St. Louis more-or-less stuck by their guns with a contact-first approach.

With a plethora of young flamethrowers expected to join the big-league ranks in the near future, it will be interesting to see what direction the Cardinals turn with the hiring of their next pitching coach. For an organization that touts itself as being innovative and ahead of the curve, I think I speak for all Cardinals fans when I say that signs of change and progress would be greatly appreciated.