The Washington Nationals firing of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist will elicit analysis, qualifications and questions. Most will point to the Nationals’ other flaws and wonder why the pitching coach is the fall guy just before going into a detailed examination as to why the pitching coach should be the fall guy based on their own philosophical bent.
Regardless, there are several justifications to fire a pitching coach, most of which outsiders – including the media and people from other organizations – cannot possibly know if they are valid in this case. In the end, general manager Mike Rizzo has every right to make a change at any level in his organization. If, as he said when the announcement was made, there were flaws and preparation issues and he wanted to bring a new message to the pitchers, then fine.
However, it’s rarely that simple in any case and particularly complicated with the Nationals.
With the hiring of minor-league pitching coordinator Paul Menhart to replace Lilliquist, the easy answer is to have someone more in line with what the front office wants. It’s difficult to understand what the preparation issues were given that the entire pitching staff is comprised of veterans who have their own routines and know their jobs. Their starting pitching has generally been good. The bullpen hasn’t, but that points to decisions Lilliquist did not make. Mistakes and misuse of the pitching staff fall on manager Dave Martinez, and Martinez is going from inexperienced in 2018 to overmatched in 2019 with the same on-field mediocrity. Are they going to point to Trevor Rosenthal as a reason to fire Lilliquist? By that logic, Rizzo needs to go as well.
What’s often missed in today’s world where large factions of baseball observers and analysts function under the impression that an organization is tantamount to any company where there are executives, managers, supervisors and midlevel workers with duties clear and orders adhered to via clearly delineated lines is that it’s not like that in sports. The players pick and choose what they’ll listen to and if they tacitly decide to tune out a manager, a pitching coach or hitting coach, it’s not the players who will go.
To compound that reality, the Nationals are not a young team where the pitchers have little choice but to listen to the pitching coach and follow organizational edicts. What is Lilliquist, Menhart or anyone else past or present going to say to Max Scherzer if Scherzer doesn’t agree or doesn’t want to hear their recommendations? They’re all veterans. They do what they want.
If it’s a change for its own sake, that’s a reason to do it. To think that it will solve what ails the Nationals – and has ailed the Nationals for eight years – is farcical.
There is a new practice of hiring pure outsiders with new theories, deep analytics, recommendations specifically tailored to the individual rather than an overriding philosophy for all. It might be a trend or it might be the new template. Pitching coaches who pitched in the majors or at least in the minors could go the way of the former player advancing to GM. It doesn’t happen anymore. Whether the change is more about controlling the message than it is about what works and what doesn’t is irrelevant. This is how it is.
Often, a pitching coach’s role is to stand there looking contemplative, go to the mound and say some stuff to the struggling pitcher or to give him a breather, and to try to put organizational edicts into action. Like the puppet managers who proliferate baseball today, many old-school pitching coaches with a track record do not want to stay within those increasingly constraining lines.
Had Lilliquist been an aide-de-camp of Martinez, this could be viewed as a clear shot at the manager telling him that he’s next if the team doesn’t turn around in the next month, but the days of the manager-pitching coach being Siamese twins a la Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are over. The front office hires the pitching coach and the manager has limited – if any – say about it. There’s a good chance that Martinez was informed after the decision was made and nothing he said or did would change it.
This is a continuing issue with the Nationals. Since 2012, they have had the most talent in baseball. They spend money like a big market club, make savvy acquisitions and develop young players. But they have yet to advance beyond the Division Series in the years they made the playoffs and have had several seasons in which they were preseason favorites and disappointed terribly as also-rans.
Harping on the Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012 might seem passé, but it is a flashpoint as to what has ailed this organization and robbed them of at least two championships they should have won led by Strasburg and Bryce Harper. With Harper gone and a young core led by Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Trea Turner, they should be preparing for the next run. Instead, they’re firing the pitching coach in a largely inconsequential maneuver to serve as a distraction for what truly ails them: a fissure in understanding the importance of the manager and a reluctance to pay that manager and give him at least some say in how the team is handled.
They’re fortunate in one respect: the entire National League East is a wrestling match of flaws and mediocrity. This has allowed them to remain relatively close to the top of the division despite their 13-17 start.
Even if they manage to float to the top in this battle of attrition and make the postseason, what reason is there to believe that 2019 will be any different from the other seasons in which they made the playoffs and were bounced in the first round? It does not necessarily need to be another 82-win season to be categorized as a(nother) failure.
Barring a fundamental change in how they treat their on-field staff, what’s the difference who the manager or pitching coach is? They’re not hiring Joe Girardi to manage the team because he’d want to be paid and would want some influence in running the team. Ownership doesn’t want the former and the baseball ops doesn’t want the latter. Firing the pitching coach is cosmetic and does nothing to repair what ails this team and has ailed them for nearly a decade.