September 9, 2010
Gilding the Lilly
When the Los Angeles Dodgers and starter Ted Lilly square off tonight against the Astros in Houston, very little will be at stake for either team. While the Padres’ recent freefall has allowed the surging Giants and Rockies to vault back into playoff contention, the struggling Dodgers’ team goals have been reduced to keeping players healthy, sorting out their options for 2011, and using the 12 remaining games against their more aspirational National League West rivals to play spoiler. Oh, and hopefully entertaining their paying customers more by their on-field exploits than the spectacle of their owners’ uncanny impersonations of Oliver and Barbara Rose.
For Lilly, however, the next few weeks carry much more personal importance. The four-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Cubs prior to the 2007 season is set to expire, and the veteran left-hander’s performance down the stretch may go a long way toward determining the size and length of his next engagement. Lilly entered his walk year in Chicago under a flashing red light, recovering from off-season surgery to clean up his shoulder, and when he returned to the mound in late April the 34-year-old seemed less than his normally reliable self: strikeouts were down, walks and home runs were up, and only an uncommonly low BABIP helped him maintain a respectable ERA despite his indifferent peripherals. Since being shipped to the Dodgers at the trade deadline—a deal which kept him in blue but moved the former Athletic, Blue Jay, and Cub another letter down the alphabet—Lilly has been much more like his old, often underrated self:
Lilly’s performance in Wrigley Field this year wasn’t exactly poor—after all, he still sported a Support Neutral Winning Percentage of .539 and a reasonable ERA—but his peripherals were all trending in the wrong direction, as evidenced by a 4.14 SIERA, and his 3-8 record wasn’t going to help him in the court of publicly financed opinion. He’s never had overwhelming stuff, relying on three solid off-speed pitches (a slider, a changeup, and a big, looping curve) to keep hitters off balance while working his low-velocity fastball in on their hands. Over the years he’s lost a few ticks off his heater—from near 90 mph in his Toronto days to around 86 earlier this year—and when you combine that with his early-season numbers, age, and recent surgery you can understand why there were whispers that Lilly was losing his balance on the “crafty lefty” tightrope and might soon plummet out of the major leagues, or at least out of the ranks of solid rotation options.
Since the trade, however, his velocity has been up a smidge, and his peripherals have improved to the point where a strong finish will allow his overall 2010 numbers to camouflage themselves quite well among his recent seasons. What’s accounted for this change? Most likely, nothing much—his early-season struggles and late-season surge are perhaps just normal small sample variations that have summed up to his actual ability. Then again, our Resident Expert, John Perrotto, reports that a few scouts have noticed a change in Lilly’s approach since the trade, a willingness to be more aggressive in the strike zone—and indeed the numbers back that up a little, with Lilly throwing 71.6 percent of his pitches for strikes since the trade, compared to 68.4 percent before. This willingness to work more in the strike zone may also have some bearing on his increased home-run rate since the trade. Lilly himself alluded to this after his most recent start, a seven-inning, seven-strikeout affair marred only by two solo home runs, one of them to Buster Posey: “To Posey, I made the mistake that he wasn’t swinging, and I just kind of grooved it in. It kind of felt like he was taking right there, I don’t know why.” More likely, though, this too is just small sample size noise.
In any case, whether Lilly has improved with his move to Chavez Ravine or has merely pitched as he always has, solid work in his last five starts should set him up for another solid payday. His BABIP currently sits at .249, a career low, so one might expect Lilly to give up more hits down the stretch. However, Lilly is perhaps the most extreme fly ball pitcher in the game—his 51.5 percent fly ball percentage is the highest in baseball this year, a typical result for him—which leads to lower-than-average BABIPs, as evidenced by his .270, .283, and .270 marks the last three years. Pitching in Dodger Stadium, with the baseball’s third-lowest run-scoring park factor (0.89) and a mid-pack home-run factor (0.97) should help keep more of those fly balls in the yard compared to Wrigley Field (1.11 and 1.07 respectively), so any jump in BABIP may well be offset by a decreased home-run rate.
It’s this last factor—the run-scoring environment in Dodger Stadium—that poses an interesting question: How much will that affect Lilly’s off-season decisions? Even after it became clear that the Dodgers weren’t really in the playoff hunt, they pulled Lilly back from waivers after the Yankees claimed him and stated they were interested in discussing a new contract—an offer Lilly’s agent responded warmly to. Below is a list of the possible free-agent starting pitchers who may be available in the offseason:
The list is sorted in order of SNLVAR earned since 2007—the last time Lilly was on the market. Cliff Lee stands alone in this class, of course, but surprisingly Lilly’s numbers both over time and this year are comparable. No one here is particularly young, and everyone else has major questions: Arroyo has an affordable option; Kuroda may not want to pitch in the U.S.; Vazquez, Pavano, Harang, and Myers are notoriously inconsistent; Webb, Penny, Sheets, Bedard, and Harden are huge injury risks; Pettitte is likely either a Yankee or a regular consumer of the Early Bird Dinner Special; and Jon Garland is Jon Garland, which is to say someone that doesn’t get major-league GMs breathing heavily. Given this list, if I’m a team looking for a solid veteran starter that won’t completely break the bank (and what team isn’t?), Lilly might well be at the top of my shopping list, putting him in line to get sprayed with the money hose by the highest of many bidders. Teams may be loath to give a long-term contract to a 35-year-old whose stuff leaves little margin for error, but Lilly has spent the last half-decade proving his durability, his adaptability and his ability to put enough zeroes on the scoreboard to win games. If Randy Wolf garnered 3/$30 million in last year’s market, Lilly has to be worth at least that much.
On the other hand, at this point in his career, what does Ted Lilly want? Money? OK, everybody likes money, but somehow it just don’t seem like him. He earned over $40 million with his last contract—by far the best big pitching contract of the 2006-07 offseason, by the way. Despite his time with the Yankees, he’s never pitched in a World Series, so perhaps winning a championship would be his overriding concern, or at least pitching in the postseason to wash away the taste of his NLDS drubbing at the hands of the Diamondbacks in 2007.
On the other hand, a little pop psychology makes a good case for him signing with the Dodgers, even for less money. He was raised and has a home in California, where his wife is a veterinarian, and where his first child was born this spring. The team has a lot of question marks, but so does every team in the ever-competitive NL West, where each September brings a cavalry charge to the finish. Perhaps most importantly, signing in LA guarantees he winds up in a ballpark suited to his particular brand of aerial artistry. If the Dodgers offer him something like $17 million over two years, he may jump at the chance. It might all come down to which of these things he values most: earning more money than his colleagues, winning a team championship regardless of his personal success, or hearing fans cheer him as he strolls off the mound after yet another quality start, aided by a few long fly balls that died at the track. If he picks Door No. 3, I can’t say that I’d blame him.
Question of the Day (h/t Tommy Bennett)
If you were Ted Lilly, would you accept less money and/or a shorter contract to pitch closer to home in a ballpark better suited to your talents?