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Stat Geeks Win! Cardinals Management Is Closing the Door on Old School Thinking

On the surface, it seemed odd for the Cardinals to fire pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.

For the second consecutive season, the Cardinals were grounded. And though they could not lift off and fly into the playoffs, Lilliquist’s aviary appeared to be in solid condition.

Since “Lilly” became the Cardinals pitching coach in 2012, his staffs have performed well above average. Over the last six seasons the Cardinals rank third among the 30 MLB teams in overall earned-run average, third in starting-pitching ERA, second in quality starts, eighth in bullpen ERA, sixth in save percentage, and third in denying inherited runners from scoring.

Run prevention is essential to success. And since 2012, under Lilly’s watch, Cardinals pitchers (with help from the defense) were No. 3 in the majors at preventing runs, giving up only 3.9 per game. Only the Dodgers (3.7) and Nationals (3.8) better.

So why bounce the coach that supervised the strongest and most consistent area of the team between 2012 and 2017?

It came down to this: Lilliquist was too old school. Cardinals management wanted a more advanced approach to pitching strategy. A fresher brain for recognizing the specific danger zone for each individual starting pitcher. A mind that can optimize bullpen performance. A smart planner who can develop a bullpen structure that fits the new template  … a template that has starters working fewer innings, and managers turning to the bullpen earlier and with greater urgency — front-loading relievers into the game to handle emergencies before they blow up and flame into crises.

Yeah.

We’re talking about advanced metrics. And utilizing the pages of data cranked out by the the analytics department.

The Cardinals have a smart analytics staff that generates binders filled with information, delivered to the manager and his coaches. The info, if used consistently and properly, can influence dugout decisions and give the team a tactical edge.

The Cubs are big into this.

The Brewers are big into this.

Their managers have bought in,  gone all-in, to enhance their club’s win probability by tapping into the flow of big data.

Which may or may not explain why the Cardinals had a horrible record of 13-25 combined against the Cubs and Brewers this season.

Which may or may not explain why the Cardinals had a 5-11 record in one-run games against the Cubs and Brewers.  And a 2-7 record against the Cubs and Brewers in contests decided by two runs.

This may or may not explain why the Cardinals won only 83 games in 2017 to be relegated to third place behind the Cubs and Brewers in the NL Central.

If these info-loaded binders were being ignored and valued about as much as the spent sunflower seed shells on the dugout floor…

Then Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch evidently decided to bring in a new pitching coach who is willing and able to take that deep dive into the numbers.

Was this fair to Lilliquist? In many ways, no. But all 30 baseball operations are trying to stay ahead of one another by breaking away from old-time-baseball thinking. Evolving and adapting and finding new ways to gain leverage in competition. It isn’t unfair to ask key baseball men — the manager, the pitching coach, the batting coach — to change and grow.

“When you’re looking at pitch strategy and the modernization of the tools we have available to us, we need somebody that understands it, has interest in it, can communicate it and can teach it,” Mozeliak said at Tuesday’s news conference. Girsch and his group and that (analytics) team upstairs is something we want to be available, accessible, and — candidly — used.”

Mozeliak talked about a process that would lead to “future growth.”

In that context, the pitching-coach move makes sense.

Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. was well ahead of the industry curve in understanding the importance of analytics and the impact of advanced stats as a weapon in competition. DeWitt’s prescient vision was a critical factor in the Cardinals’ sustained run of high-level success.

If the dugout staff won’t go with the plan … then it’s time to go.  As in, bye-bye.

That was the clear messages sent in the latest coaching-staff rearrangement.

(Well, at least the bosses didn’t get really vicious here by terminating Mike Matheny BFF John Mabry, the batting coach.)

I believe the firing was a signal to manager Matheny. The bosses absolutely support their manager, but they’re challenging him to expand his thinking — so he can evolve and improve. And that’s a positive thing. I spoke with DeWitt on Wednesday morning; he politely insisted that his manager is willing to embrace baseball’s new math. I really hope that’s true.

Matheny said all of the right things about that on Tuesday, and that was encouraging.

But if Matheny still needed a nudge to get on board, the poke came early this week with the Lilliquist erasure.

This does, however, leave me with a few questions that can’t be answered right now:

1. Who’s the new pitching coach? Will Mozeliak and Girsch hire a PC that is fluent in advanced metrics, understands how to implement advanced metrics, and can do it in a way that enhances Cardinals’ pitching? Or will the front office use this opening as a means to reward a loyal organizational coach? The Tampa Bay Rays and their longtime pitching coach Jim Hickey just ended their relationship. Hickey’s history is abundantly clear: he is a true believer in the new way of thinking, and his use of metrics was a key part in his successful development of young pitchers. If the Cardinals go with a buddy-buddy internal promotion instead of hiring an enlightened pitching coach who can implement the desired process — which Mozeliak says he wants — then this is all pretty meaningless. That said, I don’t want to be disrespectful to Triple A Memphis pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd. If he’s a student of the metrics and believes in the Cards’ statistical modernization, then it makes sense to consider him.

2. Was Matheny just playing along here, or is he 100 percent committed to this metrics-driven approach? If Matheny is hesitant to accept advice from the new pitching coach … if Matheny is unwilling to give the PC meaningful authority over the staff … if Matheny tries to neutralize the new coach to protect managerial power … then all of this is pretty meaningless.

3. Will Mozeliak and Girsch be aggressive about reinforcing the bullpen? The Cardinals need to strengthen this area. Even in calm times, Matheny runs through a lot of relievers. (Think: wood chipper.) And if the relievers will be asked to handle a larger innings load, the Cardinals have to add fresh arms, talented arms, sturdy arms. If the Cards journey into the 2018 season with a thin, vulnerable, breakable bullpen … then all of this is pretty meaningless.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – The Cardinals’ First Offseason Challenge? Get Smarter.