Runners know something Lilly doesn't
Falling victim to stolen bases has plagued the struggling Dodgers pitcher lately
MINNEAPOLIS -- I have a working theory on why Ted Lilly has been so bad recently.
On Tuesday night, the veteran left-hander gave up six runs for his third consecutive start to stick the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 6-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins before a sellout crowd of 39,755 at Target Field.
I will reveal the theory, more or less confirmed by both Lilly and Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt after the game, to you later in this column. First, some background.
In those three starts, Lilly has given up 18 runs (17 earned) on 23 hits over 14 2/3 innings, good for a 10.43 ERA. Against the Twins, he went 4 2/3, giving up a run in four of the five innings he pitched in and dealing with at least one runner in scoring position in all five of them. And after the Dodgers battled back from an early three-run deficit -- tying the game with an unlikely home run by Aaron Miles and a clutch, two-out, two-run single by Andre Ethier in the top of the fifth -- Lilly immediately gave up a two-out single to Danny Valencia followed by a two-run homer to Luke Hughes, and that was that.
But Lilly has this other problem, one that burned him repeatedly against the Twins. During the time Lilly was on the mound, the Twins stole four bases, all of them basically uncontested. Ben Revere stole a pair, including third base in the first inning when Lilly barely gave him a look. Longtime Dodgers outfield prospect Jason Repko stole two more, one after Lilly had him picked off but took so long to throw the ball to first that Repko made it to second ahead of the relay.
Revere and Repko each scored after every one of those steals. The botched pickoff play probably cost Lilly two runs the way the inning played from there, and Repko's second steal in the fourth, after Lilly hit him, also led to a run that probably wouldn't have scored.
Asked after the game about his ability to control the running game, Lilly didn't duck the question, nor did he mince words with his answer.
"I haven't been very good at it," he said. "It seems like every time I'm going to throw to first, they're standing there, and then as soon as I throw home, they're standing on second. They obviously know something I don't."
That, of course, is what advance scouts are for. Although conventional wisdom suggests that a lefty is harder to run on because he is looking directly at first when he goes into his stretch and should be able to get the ball there more quickly than a right-hander, that doesn't really apply to Lilly. His delivery to the plate is big and slow, and as Repko quickly figured out, so too is his move to first.
On Repko's second steal, the ball was so late getting to catcher A.J. Ellis that Ellis didn't even bother with a throw.
"I think he is trying different things," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of Lilly. "He has a deceptive move, but when we pick a guy off, we're still not able to get him at second. We have probably had three or four of those. And if a guy is at second, you have to continue to show a spin move. If you're two seconds to home plate, you have no chance to get that guy at third."
Lilly is working to correct the problem, Mattingly said, including varying the time between coming set and starting his delivery, varying the number of times he looks at the runner before starting his delivery, and varying his pickoff move.
Lilly is in his 13th big league season, and he has never been particularly good at holding runners. But this is getting ridiculous.
"I don't remember it being like this last year," Mattingly said. "A lot of times with a lefty who has a big move, you go on his first move. You don't really care if he picks because you usually don't feel like he can get you [at second] anyway."
Now, back to that theory I mentioned.
Could it be that suddenly working so hard to correct an issue that he has basically tolerated his entire career -- a career in which he is now a respectable 118-104 with a serviceable 4.22 ERA -- is adversely affecting the rest of his performance? Could it be that trying so hard to control the running game at the same time he is trying to pitch effectively is resulting in the two working against each other in a league where you can't be successful without being sharply focused on every pitch?
"That is usually how it goes," Lilly conceded.
Perhaps it's time for Lilly (5-8) to concentrate on keeping those runners from reaching base in the first place. And when they do, perhaps it's time for him to focus on the next batter and let that runner do what he is going to do. Perhaps then, he will at least be quicker to the plate, as quick as he was in the past. He'll still give up his share of steals, sure, but maybe not to this unprecedented degree.
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"I don't think it has ever been to this extent," Honeycutt said. "I didn't see anything like this last year. ... I think your focus has to be consistent one way or the other. When you make a pitch to the plate, obviously your focus has to be on that side of it. I know it's something that is eating at him because Teddy is such a competitor."
The whole serving-two-masters thing is exactly why a lot of managers and pitching coaches don't like their guys experimenting with slide steps to hold runners, especially if the pitcher is young and inexperienced. The thought is that you're changing his mechanics, creating the high likelihood that the pitch won't be executed properly.
The same dynamic could be what is plaguing Lilly right now. And maybe the result is that he isn't pitching as well as he normally does and isn't controlling the running game even to the less-than-adequate degree we have come to expect from him.
But does that mean Lilly should simply ignore the running game? Well, not entirely.
"It's tough when you pick off guys and you're still not able to get them," Honeycutt said. "Varying your times is something that has to be a constant work in progress, because you know who the runners are, and you know who is going to run and who isn't. The best baserunners, they're going to get their steals. But it's those midrange baserunners, those are the guys you have to stop."
Revere and Repko are fast, but they aren't burners on the caliber of, say, Dee Gordon or Peter Bourjos. And if Lilly could have kept them from taking advantage of him, he might have saved himself two or three or even four runs. Then again, if he had paid that much attention to them, he might have gotten hit harder than he did.
That, of course, is something we will never know.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.