Anyone who’s been watching the Washington Nationals this year realizes they need to do something to address their pitching woes. Whether it was Trevor Rosenthal making history by being the first pitcher in MLB history to failing to make an out until his fifth appearance of the season, the bullpen’s ERA of 6.02 being the second lowest in the big leagues, or a rotation that’s struggled despite the likes of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, something had to change.
After last night’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals (which they ironically won 2-1), Nationals executives decided that change would come in the form of firing pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. Mike Rizzo made the announcement that after joining the organization last year, Lilliquist was being relieved of his duties because “we thought there was preparation issues” and “we wanted to get a new message and a new voice.”
Interestingly, the “new voice” won’t be so new as Paul Menhart will be Lilliquist’s replacement. Menhart’s been with the Nationals organization for 14 years, including spending the last five as the minor league pitching coordinator. That means many of the Nats pitchers, such as Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross, are already very familiar with his work and could adjust relatively easily to their new coach.
While giving the pitching staff a new person to work with after just 30 games might lead to the changes need to be successful in the long grind of a season, it also represents an overall theme that we’ve seen with the Nationals organization over the years. Team executives don’t seem eager to give the coaching staff its fair shot.
The Nats failed to bring back Dusty Baker despite the team being 60 games over .500 during his two year tenure, which also meant losing pitching coach Mike Maddux because they thought the new manager should play a role in selecting the pitching coach he worked with. This also means that pitchers like Max Scherzer, who are now in the fifth season with the Nationals, have been through four pitching coaches. Even if they’re the best coaches around, the inconsistency can’t be great for creatures of habit like pitchers.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of fans might not even recognize Lilliquists’ name. Steve McCatty and Mike Maddux were often discussed on pre and post game shows and reporters covering the Nats beat often reported that the players would mention how they got them through some struggles. That wasn’t the case with Lilliquist who often flew under the radar, even when all the negative attention was shining on the pitching staff this year.
Perhaps that’s part of why this apparently wasn’t a spur of the moment decision and was actually considered after the disappointing season the pitching staff had in 2018. As manager Davey Martinez pointed out, this was “something that was thought out for awhile” and “wasn’t a decision that was made two days ago or two weeks ago.”
Even while the decision wasn’t made lightly, it highlights one of the major issues the Nationals have had recently. When the team was at the top of its game from 2012 to 2017, the pitching staff owned the second lowest ERA in the big leagues but has dropped to the middle of the road since Lilliquist took over in 2018. All of the blame surely can’t be put on the pitching coach, but his presence simply can’t be ignored as he’s the one major change and connection between the entire pitching staff.
Fortunately, Menhart is already familiar with the organization’s pitching philosophy and knows many of the pitchers, so he won’t have to play too much catch up. But it also raises some questions about the rest of the coaching staff’s fate. Former pitching coach Randy St. Claire was fired mid-season in 2009, shortly before manager Manny Acta also got the axe, and hitting coach Rick Eckstein was fired in July of 2013 — a couple months before Davey Johnson ended up leaving. And nobody was calling for their heads quite like the DC fan base has already been calling for Davey Martinez to be fired this year.