The Dodgers are thriving this season, sitting alone in first place in the National League West. A great deal of credit is certainly owed to Andre Ethier and NL MVP favorite Matt Kemp. The two outfielders have been prolific run producers and Kemp is fresh off one of the most dominant months in recent history.
While offense is certainly important, it has been the team’s pitching that has let the leads stand. While Chad Billingsley has returned to form this season and Chris Capuano has been a pleasant surprise, the key arms in the rotation have been southpaws Clayton Kershaw and Ted Lilly.
Kershaw and Lilly could not be more different. Kershaw is a phenom, who at not even 25 years old is already a Cy Young winner and on the fast track to Cooperstown. Lilly is a 36-year-old veteran hurling on his sixth Major League team. While both left-handers have very different pasts, they are both a part of an important present for the Dodgers.
Kershaw was as good as it gets last season with 21 wins, 248 K’s, and a 2.23 ERA. What’s even more promising is that he is on a better track this season. Though six starts, Kershaw was just 2-3 with a 3.52 ERA and 15 walks a season ago. This season, Kershaw remains a perfect 2-0, while his walks have been nearly cut in half and his ERA is just 2.63.
Aside from comparing Kershaw to his own personal milestones there are few other peers who have enjoyed his level of excellence. Of course, his dominant stuff coming from a left-handed arm slot may remind some of Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Truth is, Kershaw is very different than Koufax. Kershaw could end up having a far greater impact than Koufax.
Koufax was a late bloomer who did not hone his control until he was 25 years old. He then went on to have six of the most impressive seasons in baseball history before an arm injury prematurely ended his career. Kershaw has been pitching at a high level since he broke into the league in 2008. Here’s a comparison of both Dodgers aces through 24 years old.
To put Kershaw’s early performance in even greater perspective, consider that while the 24-year old southpaw’s next win will be his 50th of his career, Ted Lilly, a two-time All-Star, had just five wins at the age of 25. In many ways, Lilly is more similar to Koufax based on his late bloomer status. Of course, Lilly never quite had the glory days of Koufax, but when you look at his career trends he does resemble a fine wine that gets better over time.
The Dodgers have a nice blend of young talent and proven veterans. While the hope is that Kershaw will remain effective far longer than Koufax did and perhaps remain as relevant in his mid-30s as Lilly, what matters most for Dodgers fans is the present. Right now, the two southpaws are as good as any tandem in baseball.
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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- The ability to retire batters via strikeouts
- The ability to limit base-runners by avoiding the issuance of walks
- The ability to limit home runs by keeping the ball on the ground
Pitchers who do a good job at these three things are commonly assumed to be very skilled. Pitchers who do these things well but don’t have a superb ERA to match are seen as unlucky.
- Pitchers with elite ground-ball skills (above 47 GB%) including stars like Felix Hernandez and Chris Carpenter and lesser ones like Paul Maholm and Aaron Cook.
- Pitchers with above-average ground-ball skills (about 44.5%-47%) including stars like Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia and lesser ones like Joe Saunders and Jeff Suppan.
- Pitchers with below-average ground-ball skills (about 40.5%-44.5%) including stars like Jake Peavy and Cole Hamels and lesser ones like Kevin Millwood and Kyle Lohse
- Pitchers with terrible ground-ball skills (below 40.5%) including stars like Jered Weaver and Matt Cain and lesser ones like Jarrod Washburn and Oliver Perez.
Now, let’s look at each of the categories.
By Tommy Rancel //
In advance of last weekend’s deadline for exclusive negotiating rights with their own free agents, the Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed Ted Lilly to a three-year deal worth $33 million in mid-October.
It’s remarkable that Lilly’s $11 million annual salary under his new contract actually tops the $10 million he averaged under his last deal. Lilly hasn’t gotten worse, but he hasn’t exactly gotten better. Keep in mind, he will be 35 years old on Opening Day. If Lilly’s mostly average, 35-year-old left arm fetches $11 million a year, pitchers like Carl Pavano, Jon Garland, and Hiroki Kuroda should be in good shape on the open market once Cliff Lee signs.
Although he spent just two months in Los Angeles, Lilly impressed the Dodgers enough to lock him up before he hit free agency. In his 12 starts with L.A., he went 7-4 with a 3.52 ERA. This came after a 3-8 record for the Cubs with a 3.69 ERA in 18 games.
Defensive independent metrics like FIP and xFIP – stats that measures strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed and strip out factors beyond a pitcher’s control – show that Lilly’s true talent level in Chicago was closer to his poor record than his better-than-average ERA. Meanwhile – according to the same metrics – Lilly was a much better pitcher in Los Angeles despite the minimal difference in ERA.
The biggest difference between Lilly’s two stops was strikeouts. In 117 innings on the North Side, he struck out 89 batters. After his move out West, he struck out 77 batters in just 76.2 innings – or 9.04 batters per nine innings (K/9). In addition to the increase in Ks, he also dropped his BB/9 from a very good 2.23 to a fantastic 1.76. Home runs followed him to L.A., but the long ball has always been a problem for Lilly (career 1.35 HR/9).
Looking at pitch selection, Lilly used more fastballs and curveballs with the Dodgers while throwing fewer sliders and change-ups. (It should be noted that he also gained velocity across the board after leaving the Cubs, but velocity readings can vary among different parks.)
On the other hand, swinging strikes and first-pitch strikes are not park-influenced. After the trade, Lilly upped his first-pitch strike percentage from 61.0% to 67.9%. He also increased his whiffs from 7.6% to 10.9%. The latter is the highest total for him since 2003.
In some cases, a player’s value or perception may differ from real-life to fantasy. That said, Lilly’s place as a mid-rotation starter is universal. He has been durable (averaged 183 innings over last eight seasons) and he piles up wins. In fact, since 2003 only four left-handed starters have won at least 10 games a year. The list: Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Mark Buehrle, and Lilly.
There is no rush to lock him up like the Dodgers did, but Lilly should provide value as an SP3 or an SP4 in all leagues next season.
For more on Ted Lilly and mid-rotation candidates check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.
By Eriq Gardner //
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.