The 13–17 Washington Nationals made the oddly timed decision Thursday night to fire pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, immediately following a 2–1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nationals hold the 23rd-ranked team earned run average in baseball, thanks largely to another putrid, horrifying start to the season for their perennially chaotic bullpen—Lilliquist probably deserved to be fired, but the timing of the move strongly suggests that the Nationals have reached the Wild Flailing phase of their ongoing, largely self-inflicted spiral into mediocrity.
That the firing happened after an excellent pitching performance from Stephen Strasburg and that disastrous bullpen is only part of what makes the timing awkward. Strasburg scattered six singles and struck out nine over six-plus innings Thursday night; Tony Sipp, Kyle Barraclough, and Sean Doolittle combined to make a one-run lead hold up. That’s not necessarily so minor an accomplishment for this heinous bullpen: St. Louis has the fourth most prolific offense in baseball this season; and, for the Nats, just settling on a tandem of relievers who can get the team from the starters to closer Doolittle counts as a major stabilization, after the whole Trevor Rosenthal fiasco. Sipp and his 7.04 ERA are a long way from having claimed a seventh-inning spot, but Barraclough and Doolittle appear set to handle set-up and closing responsibilities, having allowed just four earned runs over 26.1 combined innings this season. That’s progress!
Obviously one game should not be enough to save the job of the person responsible for Nationals pitching, but Lilliquist’s firing comes amid the best (and really only) stretch of solid pitching the Nationals have gotten from their bullpen this year. After last night, the Nationals bullpen has allowed just two earned runs over their last 20.1 innings pitched, a stretch that includes a four-game series against the Cardinals and three games in the thin air of Colorado. Not coincidentally, this promising stretch comes after Rosenthal’s last appearance, when he was credited with three wild pitches and a hit by pitch in one inning, allowed three runs, and was soon thereafter conveniently stuffed away on the 10-day injured list. Washington’s bullpen ERA has since dropped to an ugly but vastly less horrifying 5.79 on the season; yank out Rosenthal’s grisly 12 earned runs in three innings pitched, and a brain-melting six-run third of an inning from Austen Williams (also currently on the injured list), and that number drops to a manageable 4.11. Still not great, but no longer the kind of thing that turns your hair white.
After Lilliquist was given the axe, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the decision wasn’t “made two days ago or two weeks ago,” but had been “thought out for a while.” Which is tough to comprehend in the context of, you know, the calendar—the season is just over a month old, and less than a fifth of the way finished. It’s strange to think that the Nationals made this decision weeks ago, when this season’s sample size was even smaller, and then stuck to it in the face of evidence that much of what ailed their bullpen performance was the cramming of a comprehensively useless pitcher into a high-leverage role, and then the confusion caused by the panicky but necessary undoing of that decision. But crappy bullpen performance is a handy scapegoat for a team that is underwhelming across the board; Lilliquist, as pitching coach, makes for a presentable sacrifice, even if the move has to come during the most promising stretch of his entire tenure.
Rizzo can describe the way this season has gone as disappointing, and send replaceable heads rolling, but don’t forget that the Nationals got here mostly by choice. They dumped Dusty Baker after he’d won 192 games in two seasons, reportedly because the Lerner family is uncomfortable paying what it takes to retain a successful manager. They elected to not re-up the trusted and respected Mike Maddux, Baker’s pitching coach, before hiring Davey Martinez as manager. They lowballed Bryce Harper in free agency with a contract stretched out for most of a century, then made their second offer even less palatable, all but chasing him out of town. And they’ve completely abandoned the market for free agent closer Craig Kimbrel.
Scorn has and will be rightly heaped on the bunch of teams who’ve more or less chosen to sit out this season, choosing cheap and dubious “rebuilding” projects over the tried and true method of paying money to good baseball players. But reserve a little for teams like the Nationals, who had everything they needed for a contender and chipped away important chunks on the theory that someone less proven and cheaper could do the job of someone who’d established their value and worth. It should surprise exactly no one that a team that chooses complacency with its roster of bullpen arms, and makes affirmative choices to downgrade its lineup and downgrade its manager, is mired in mediocrity. Replacing a pitching coach mid-season represents the hope that intangibles will provide a team what can otherwise be purchased with cash.