Lilliquist’s firing underscores need for pitching to improve

The timing may have felt odd, given that it came minutes after a much-needed win that included a dominant start and effective relief with zero margin for error. And that it came after a little mini-run of five games that has seen improved pitching across the board, but especially from a bullpen that is attempting to stabilize itself after a disastrous opening month.

But what became clear as Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez spoke following Thursday night’s 2-1 win over the Cardinals was that the decision to fire pitching coach Derek Lilliquist had been in the works for a while.

This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment move, and it wasn’t predicated on the result of any one game. If anything, it appears the move was at least considered at the end of the 2018 season. And though it wasn’t made at the time, it must have been in the back of Rizzo’s and Martinez’s minds from the outset of the 2019 season.

“This wasn’t a decision that was made two days ago or two weeks ago,” Martinez told reporters. “There’s something that was thought out for a while, and needless to say, we got some good pitchers. Our bullpen’s doing well, but if you look, we’re still (13th) in pitching out of 15 in the National League. We have to get better.”

Indeed, the Nationals have to get better. In all phases of the game, but especially in the one department that has defined them for the last eight seasons.

This team has been built to win behind its pitching, specifically its rotation. From 2012-17, the Nats rotation owned a 3.49 ERA, second best in the majors, trailing only the Dodgers. Since the start of the 2018 season, that rotation ERA has ballooned to 4.09, which ranks 14th in the majors and in the bottom half of the National League.

No rotation headlined by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin should rank in the bottom half of anything.

Was that Lilliquist’s fault? Probably not, but read between the lines and you can understand how there were concerns about the coaching of this pitching staff.

Scherzer-Grimace-White-sidebar.jpgWhen Scherzer or Strasburg gave up a costly home run in recent weeks, you heard references to their pitch selections being “too predictable.” When this staff leads the majors in homers surrendered on 0-2 pitches, you wonder if there’s any common theme there.

Perhaps most telling, when you listened to members of this staff discuss how things were going the last season-plus - good or bad - you never heard them even mention the pitching coach. No discussion of working on mechanics with him. No credit given for helping them perfect a new pitch. Just no mention of him at all.

That’s not common. Position players routinely mention the work they do with hitting coach Kevin Long. In previous years, pitchers regularly talked about working with former coaches Mike Maddux or Steve McCatty.

Lilliquist? His name barely ever came up.

Maybe there was more going on behind the scenes than we realized. Maybe this was just a reflection of the soft-spoken Lilliquist avoiding the spotlight when his predecessors had much more commanding presences.

But whatever the reason, Lilliquist just didn’t stand out in any meaningful way during his brief time with the Nationals.

It must be noted how he came to get this job in the first place. The Nats very much liked Maddux, who was the first member of their coaching staff ever to get a multi-year contract when he was hired to serve as Dusty Baker’s pitching coach in 2016. But when Baker was let go one week after another gut-wrenching Game 5 loss in the National League Division Series, Maddux was given the same instructions as everyone else on the coaching staff: No decisions would be made until after a new manager was hired, and in the meantime all were free to speak to other clubs.

The Cardinals, who had just fired Lilliquist, made Maddux an offer. He took it, three days before the Nationals had a deal with Martinez to be their new manager. Left to find a new pitching coach in early November, the Nats went with Lilliquist, completing something of a coaching trade in the process.

Now the Nationals will have another new pitching coach, Paul Menhart, who has held numerous roles in the organization over the last 14 years, most recently as minor league pitching coordinator. Menhart is well liked, already has established relationships with many of the team’s pitchers, has a more boisterous personality than Lilliquist and is going to incorporate some different coaching techniques, especially when it comes to game preparation.

But this has become a revolving door in Washington. For 10 years, the Nationals employed only two pitching coaches: Randy St. Claire (2005-09) and Steve McCatty (2009-15). Now they’re on their fourth pitching coach in five seasons.

What does any of this mean for Martinez’s job security? Rizzo went out of his way Thursday night to praise his second-year manager, and there have been no indications (publicly or privately) that his job is currently in jeopardy.

But it would be foolish to ignore history in this regard. The Nationals have made only two midseason coaching changes since Rizzo became GM a decade ago. They fired St. Claire in June 2009, then one month later fired manager Manny Acta. They fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein in July 2013, slightly more than two months before Davey Johnson managed his final game.

Martinez has the support of the front office and his clubhouse. But the front office just made the one significant change it can make that doesn’t involve changing managers. If at some point another change is made, there’s only one move left to make.

“We have to get better,” Martinez said Thursday night.

Yes, they do. Because if they don’t, someone else will be in danger of losing his job.

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