Fixing the 2011 Seattle Mariners: Ted Lilly

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Fixing the 2011 Seattle Mariners: Ted Lilly
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This article and other ones like it can be found on North and South of Royal Brougham.

The Mariners have been awful this season. As laid out by USS Mariner, the Mariners will likely need to improve several positions in 2011 in order to have a viable roster to compete. In the same article, Dave Cameron points out that the team will likely only have a little over $10 million to spend on free agency.

The article was written in mid-June, and since then the team has traded Mark Lowe (who went in the Cliff Lee deal), and his $1.15 million, and potential slight raise, are off the books. If we assume that Lowe would make $1.25 million in 2011 (perhaps a modest estimate) that means that the Mariners in fact will have close to $12 million to spend on free agency.

Like many of Jack Zduriencik’s shrewdest acquisitions, Lilly is a pitcher that lives and dies by pitching fly balls that don’t leave the yard. Lilly’s 50.4 percent fly ball rate hardly describe a groundball pitcher, and his 9.4 HR/FB percentage are about 1.5 percent above league average.

Lilly has pitched in the National League, often considered the little brother to the American League, for the last four years. And while not facing the DH has certainly helped Lilly’s stats, pitching in Wrigley Field simply couldn’t have. In terms of park factors, Wrigley rates at a 111 in favor of hitters (anything over 100 favors hitters) in 2010, it matches the 111 mark in 2009, and 105 in 2008, good for a multi-year rating of 108. Safeco comes in at 96, 97, 97, good for a multi-year rating of 97.

Those three years however, have represented Lilly’s three lowest xFIP’s since 2003, when he pitched in Oakland. So what is the 35 year old doing differently?

For this article, we’ll examine the possibility of the team signing Ted Lilly.

Lilly has throw his fastball less frequently in each of those three seasons than he has since 2004 (48.9 percent, 51.1, 53.9 respectively, compared to 52 percent in 2004, and close to or greater than 55 percent in most other seasons). He’s also throwing his curve-ball less, after throwing the hook about 16 percent of the time from 2003-2007, he’s thrown it 11.3, 11.3, and 8.4 percent in each respective year.

Lilly has replaced the former two pitches by throwing his slider more frequently. He’s thrown his slider 23.7, 25.9, 21.6 percent in past three respective seasons, up from a career high of 15.4 percent in 2006. In 2008 his slider was worth 2.66 runs per 100 pitches according to Fangraphs pitch type values. His fastball, which sat under one run per 100 pitches in most seasons before, plummeted to -0.92 runs per 100 pitches, though his change up had a positive value for the first time in 2003.

In subsequent seasons his slider has decreased in value, but it has greatly improved his fastball and curveball values, while still maintaining a positive change up.  The alteration of repertoire has manifested itself tangibly in terms of infield fly balls. This season, Lilly’s IFFB percentage sits at around 21 percent, compared to around a 13 percent league average.

Part of the philosophy that has made Jason Vargas so successful in Safeco Field is that while Safeco favors left-handed hitters, Vargas’ left handedness helps to neutralize those effects, while the cavernous park helps those flyballs elude the stands, and also help to neutralize righties.

Lilly hasn’t statistically neutralized lefties since throwing his slider more, but the trend may have more to do with the park he played in than the pitches he threw. In years leading up to his time with the Cubs, Lilly’s HR/FB ratio was higher against righties than lefties. Since Lilly started throwing his slider more often, it’s been the opposite.

Tom Gorzellany, a lefty for the present Cubs had pretty conventional platoon splits in terms of righty-lefty HR/FB  2008, his last season with 100 innings before joining the Cubs. This season, his ratio has flip-flopped just like Lilly’s.

So if we assume that Lilly’s problems against lefties are more a product of Wrigley than ability, it’s conceivable that it would reverse upon re-entering a more neutral park. And Safeco’s deep left-center power alley could also conceivably help to sustain his present effectiveness against righties.

In Lilly, the Mariners would have a pitcher who averages about two more strikeouts than Vargas per nine innings for his career, while walking about the same amount.

But what is Lilly worth on the open market? In 2007 as a player entering his age 31 season, Lilly signed a four-year, $40 million contract. Since then, the economy has struggled, and teams are way less likely to spend on long term contracts for players in their mid-30s. However, according to Fangraphs WAR values, Lilly’s contract has been recession proof.

The veteran lefty has been worth $50.8 million and counting over the course of his contract. Lilly has been good for 8.2 WAR and counting in the past three seasons.

Last year an age 34 Doug Davis, who was worth 6.5 WAR in the three years leading up to free agency, signed a one year contract worth $5.25 million (including $1 million buyout on mutual 2011 option).

An age 33 Randy Wolf, worth 6.7 WAR in the preceding three seasons inked a three year, $29.75 million contract.

Davis and Wolf represent perhaps completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Wolf was coming off of three straight seasons in which he’d played under one-year deals, while Davis had just reached the end of a three-year deal he’d signed in Arizona. Wolf’s WAR had increased in each season, leading to a 3.0 WAR in 2009, while Davis’ WAR had descended to a 1.7 mark, close to where Lilly sits with a month to go in 2010.

Wolf was a type A free agent entering the 2010 offseason, while Davis was a type B. Lilly is presently projected to be a type A free agent, though the same Dodgers that declined to offer Wolf arbitration, thus forgoing draft pick compensation, presently possess the rights to Lilly.

The reality is that being a year older than Davis, and two years older than Wolf when they signed their deals, Lilly will face less suitors.

A two-year, $14 million pact may be reasonable for both sides. Lilly’s value hasn’t been less than $7 million in a season since 2005, but his age may preclude him from receiving top dollar. The Mariners should be confident that a change in venue will help Lilly stave off father time, while Lilly’s camp will likely understand his open market value.

It only takes one team to perceive Lilly’s value significantly higher to foil the Mariners plans, but Lilly should definitely be considered this offseason.

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