Lilly and Velocity: Fantasy Buy, Sell or Hold?
by Eno Sarris //
There are a lot of different ways to look at Ted Lilly and his season so far.
1) He’s doing fine. He has a 2.90 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and is only 2-5 because of a poor offense behind him. The Cubs have scored the third-fewest runs in baseball, so Lilly is good for everything but wins. Just check out his Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graphs! He’s elite in every category but strikeouts. This is not a crazy way to look at Lilly – he’s never been about strikeouts anyway, and he’s still got his trademark control. Buy!
2) He’s heading for disaster. He’s sporting a career low in strikeouts per nine innings this year (5.66). A drop in strikeouts for a veteran is worrisome enough, but Lilly hasn’t ever averaged below 6.84 K/9 for a full year, and the lowest average he has put up in the National League was 7.57 in his first year with the Cubs. This is not a dip, it’s falling off the table bad. And Lilly’s walk rate, though still solid (2.37 BB/9), has gone up from last year (1.83 BB/9).
Lilly is also suffering from his worst fastball velocity in years – one system has him at 85.6 MPH, and one at 86.4 MPH. Both are far below his normal ~88 MPH level. Add to all this the fact that Lilly is a flyball pitcher (34.4% career groundball rate) and suddenly you can envision that home run rate (1.05) starting to inflate closer to his career number (1.35) once Wrigley Field starts warming up. Lower velocity, fewer strikeouts, more walks, and more home runs on the way? Sell!
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. A pitcher with an 88 MPH fastball obviously doesn’t rely on blowing people away for his success. His current walk rate is in line with his National League walk rate (2.36 BB/9) and he’s getting his pitches in the zone at exactly his career rate (54.7%). It’s a little worrisome that his contact rate is up (83.7% this year, 79.7% career), but we have not yet tackled his velocity fully.
It may be tempting to point to his arthroscopic surgery and the reduced velocity and wipe your hands of Lilly. The surgery did go into the labrum, and labrum surgeries have ruined many careers. But the surgery only repaired a little fraying, and was done soon after last season ended. He’s now put seven months between himself and the surgery, and lo and behold, look at his velocity charts for the most recent games (courtesy www.fangraphs.com). See how he’s been his old self again in the last two starts? Maybe Lilly just needed a little time to get back to his prior form. You might notice that his K/9 in those last two starts was a decent 6.19 (11 strikeouts in 16 innings). While velocity alone does not a good pitcher make, given average movement (and Lilly’s movement is not elite), a faster fastball is always better. Here’s some great work on the subject by Jeremy Greenhouse at Baseball Analysts.
As a flyball pitcher, Lilly will always have the risk of the home run looming (or flying) over his head. A 1.3+ HR/9 rate is not a comfortable place to be for most pitchers. Had he put up his 1.35 career HR/9 rate last year, for example, he would have been sixth-worst among ERA title qualifiers in the category. But Lilly always makes up for this flaw by not walking anyone (and thus keeping his WHIP low); the home runs he allows are often solo shots. Because he helps in WHIP, doesn’t (usually) hurt in strikeouts, and will hopefully start to win some games, he’s still a valuable pitcher despite the lack of a marquee name.
And since he still gives up those home runs, hasn’t pushed the average velocity needle back over the hump, and hasn’t yet struck out enough batters to register in that category, he can be hard to trade. Especially in leagues where other managers know how to find the velocity of a pitcher, that makes Lilly a “hold” in most formats.