Leery of Ted Lilly?

Taking on the Cincinnati Reds on the Fourth of July, Ted Lilly got lit up. The 34-year-old lefty was lashed for nine runs in 6.2 frames, serving up four home runs. But, even after that drubbing, Lilly is seemingly enjoying another quality season. After opening season on the DL while recovering from off-season surgeries on his left shoulder and left knee, Lilly has a 3.76 ERA in 93.1 innings pitched. Look a little deeper, though, and there are concerns about his waning ability to fool hitters.

Like usual, Lilly is doing a fantastic job of throwing strikes. Placing 54.6% of his pitches within the strike zone (47.2% MLB average this season), Theodore Roosevelt is getting a first pitch strike 62.4% of the time (58.6% MLB average). He’s walking just 2.12 batters per nine innings. However, Lilly isn’t inducing as many whiffs this season. His swinging strike rate, which sat around 9.5-9.6% over the past two seasons, is 7.6% in 2010 (the MLB average has ranged from 8.3-8.6% over that time frame). Lilly’s contact rate was slightly below the 81% MLB average in ’08 and ’09, but batters are connecting 84.1% of the time this season.

Considering the tame velocity on Lilly’s fastball, you might assume that hitters rarely come up empty against the pitch. But that isn’t the case, as Lilly’s “heater” has generally displayed excellent whiff rates. In 2010, the whiff rate on his fastball is still above-average, but not to the same extent as in ’08 and ’09. Lilly’s low-80’s slider, slooow curve and high-70’s change haven’t induced many whiffs in recent years, and batters are missing those pitches even less this year. He’s throwing strikes with all his offerings, but he’s not getting hitters to come up empty:

(Pitch F/X Data from TexasLeaguers.com)

Given these trends, it’s not surprising that Lilly’s falling short of his projected K rate — ZiPS had a 7.54 K/9 pre-season punch out rate and CHONE predicted 7.75 K/9, but Lilly is whiffing 6.17 batters per nine innings. His fastball is averaging 85.9 MPH this season, a tick to two ticks slower than in recent seasons. The pitch has gained some speed in recent outings, though:

Lilly’s average fastball velocity by month (Baseball Info Solutions Pitch Data)

April: 85.1 MPH
May: 85.2 MPH
June: 86.5 MPH

(July’s velocity is not yet available, but TexasLeaguers’ Pitch F/X data had him sitting at 86.7 MPH).

Lilly’s current xFIP is 4.64, his highest mark since a 2005 season cut short by shoulder and biceps injuries. His .249 BABIP is fifth-lowest among qualified MLB starters. It’s true, Lilly has a career .284 BABIP. He’s an extreme fly ball hurler (32.4 GB% this season, 34.3 GB% career), and while fly balls are far more pernicious overall, fly balls do have a lower BABIP than grounders. Lilly also gets a lot of BABIP-killing pop ups — 14.1% for his career, and an insane 21.5% this season (7-8% MLB average). But even so, it’s likely that his BABIP is closer to .300 than .250 in the second half.

Perhaps Lilly’s still rounding into form after an off-season spent rehabbing, and his recent (relative) increase in fastball velocity will lead to improved whiff rates. Hopefully that’s the case — unless Lilly starts missing more lumber, his ERA is going to rise.

A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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Kevin C.
Kevin C.

Nice article. I’d be interested to see Lilly’s “whiff” data broken down by month. Has the swing-and-miss rates on his pitches trended up as his velocity has increased? His strikeout rate has climbed steadily since his return. Given Lilly is coming off surgery, this might be a case where his more recent performance (and whiff data) should be weighted more heavily in projecting Lilly’s 2010 going forward.