By Eno Sarris //
The story on Ted Lilly has been fairly consistent over his career: fly-ball control-type pitcher with a great curveball, a decent slider, and a placeholder fastball. That sort of pitcher often is flawed but useful. Usually pitchers like Lilly will have poor home-run rates, but while they keep baserunners to a minimum, they can also usually be helpful at the back end of a fantasy rotation. Vanilla ice cream has its’ place.
But with Ted Lilly in his 35th year on this planet, it’s fair to ask when this run of usefullnes will end. Right now, he’s showing the worst strikeout rate (5.89 K/) and fastball velocity (86.4 MPH) of his career. Even paired with a great home park as he is – Dodger Stadium can help some of his flyballs die on the warning track – no WHIP is low enough to play a pitcher with a mid-fours ERA.
The bad news first. Lilly is not likely to recover his career strikeout rate (7.67 K/9). His swinging strike rate has steadily been dropping along with his fastball velocity, down from double digits earlier in his career to 7.9% this year. Since 8.5% is average in that category, he’s now getting whiffs on fewer of his offerings than the average pitcher. And while this is a small sample, swinging strike rate is a per-pitch metric. That means it’s much closer to reliable than metrics that are based on the outcome of a single plate appearance.
Then comes the worse news. If he’s not getting whiffs on those curveballs and sliders like he used to, then those pitches will be put in play. If those balls are being put in play, they are most likely going to be fly balls given his historical fly ball rate (34%, and 44% is average across the league). And, going back to beginning of last year, the Dodgers have the worst outfield defense in the major leagues. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and the cobbled-together left field group in Los Angeles have put together a -12.4 UZR/150 (a zone-based defensive metric), and even the second-worst Braves outfield is significantly better (-8.2 UZR/150).
We can’t look to his batting average on balls in play for much regression, then. Currently sitting at .326, it should move some, but BABIP is related to defense as well. The Dodgers are only turning 70.2% of their balls in play into outs, fourth-worst in the major leagues. We can’t expect Lilly’s BABIP to move towards his .273 career BABIP if his outfield is the worst in the majors and his entire defense is fourth-worst.
Lilly is still showing his trademarked control. Since he’s moved to the National League, even his worst walk rate has been significantly better than the national average (2.81 BB/9 in 2008, average is usually around 3.4). That 2.3 BB/9 since moving to the weaker league has helped him put up a 1.14 WHIP.
But as his fastball gets slower, and his offspeed pitches get fewer whiffs, his margin of error decreases. Once those balls are put into play, we know the defense behind him won’t help him much. Even spot-starting Ted Lilly at home is becoming an increasingly risky decision. Certainly avoid him on the road for now and don’t consider him much of a buy-low.
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