I'm not a huge Derek Lilliquist fan, but I think he was forced to take the fall for another man's incompetence today.
The former St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach will not be back for the 2018 season, as the team made its first round of cuts Tuesday. Bullpen coach Blake IIlsley will also not receive a contract for next season.
After taking over the job in August of 2012, Lilliquist provided a nice transition from the Hall of Fame work of Dave Duncan as the Cardinals changed managers. While he didn't have the deft touch of Duncan — and who does? — Lilliquist did a fine job if you look at the stats.
Here are the earned run averages of Lilliquist's pitching staffs since he took over:
2013: 3.42 (5th in NL)
2014: 3.50 (7th in NL)
2015: 2.94 (1st in NL)
2016: 4.08 (7th in NL)
2017: 4.01 (6th in NL)
Over his five seasons as the sole pitching coach of the Cardinals, Lilliquist's staffs were among the top teams in his league, or at worst the middle of the pack.
Pitching wasn't the problem behind the 2017 Cardinals team; it was the mismanagement of that pitching staff. With all due respect to Lilliquist and Duncan, the manager of a team controls the pitching, lineup and integral on-field operations. Coaches can lend advice and influence, but ultimately it's the manager who gets the final call.
Now, a pitching coach is more vital than say a hitting coach, simply due to the complex mechanics and season-long requirements that a pitcher goes through. There's more work to be done there.
Still, I don't think Lilliquist deserved to be fired. It's not his fault Matheny couldn't properly execute in-game moves and know when to say when with his pitchers. If Lilliquist was bad at his job, the earned runs average would have ballooned up to 4.50 or higher in 2017.
Still, with a rapidly declining Adam Wainwright, a less-than-average Mike Leake and multiple closers, Lilliquist's pitchers did an admirable job. If you want to go all in on advanced stats here, just take it from a true baseball detective in The Intrepid's Zach Gifford.
Lilliquist fired after the team's pitching staff ranked 10th in fWAR and 13th in RA-9 WAR. Huh— Zach Gifford (@zjgifford) October 3, 2017
Here's a little more from Gifford:
Only the bullpen's RA-9 WAR was outside the top 13 of MLB (ranked 17th). SP fWAR, SP RA-9 WAR, bullpen fWAR were all above average— Zach Gifford (@zjgifford) October 3, 2017
Again, I'm not writing here to state that Lilliquist is perfect at his job. I'm telling you he is a fall guy for Matheny, the true problem in this operation. If you are going to fire a couple of coaches and alter the methods behind how a pitcher is managed in season, how do you retain the manager who made all the bad moves?
This would have made more sense if Matheny and Lilliquist were fired, along with hitting coach John Mabry. Clean the slate and start fresh instead of switching out a wire in the hope that a faulty computer works better.
The Cardinals claimed the moves are the first steps in shifting how they handle pitchers and correlate the statistics behind their management. A new wave of thinking that I promise Matheny will find a way to mess up next year.
Matheny received an extension last season even though his results with the Cardinals have continuously gotten worse. If you missed it before, let's cover it real quick before I wrap this up.
2013: World Series loss
2014: Lose the NLCS
2015: Lose the NLDS, winning one game
2016: Miss the playoffs, finish second
2017: Miss the playoffs, finish third
Once again, if you are going to change the philosophy behind something on a team, it's best to wipe the slate clean, manager and coaches.
Here's the uncomfortable truth: Matheny is protected against failure. Just last week, as the team was sealing up another failure, team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that Matheny was the guy to lead the Cardinals into the future. It seems that Matheny is the chosen one, protected up high by DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak. No matter how much of a joke other managers make of him during crucial games, he sticks around.
Please stop telling me Matheny held this team together in the final months. He cost them game after game with his inability to pull pitchers, painful choices in relievers, and mixture of lineups that insisted on starting a never-right Stephen Piscotty. Give me a break.
Last Wednesday, against the Chicago Cubs, Matheny directed "Killing Michael Wacha's Career: Part 2" at Busch Stadium, allowing the embattled starter to pitch to the Cubs in a close game even though the STATS worked against the move. Wacha gave up five straight hits. Matheny was proud of his guys after a bad loss.
If you want to change the mindset behind pitcher usage, get rid of the mad man behind the operation, not his henchman.
If you want to get smarter and catch the Cubs, make the right personnel moves.
For the love of good whiskey, be bold this offseason, not soft.
Firing Derek Lilliquist, and not Mike Matheny, was soft work from the Cardinals.
Don't be fooled. Lilliquist was the fall guy for Matheny's incompetence.