Appreciating Ted Lilly

Ted Lilly retired the day before Thanksgiving, ending an abortive attempt to come back from a series of injuries to his neck and shoulder. The pain was mysterious, wrote the Los Angeles Times: “One day his neck is feeling fine, then it stiffens up and he can hardly turn his head, let alone pitch.” In order to try to manage the pain, he underwent a procedure where “doctors used a large needle to burn the nerve endings on Lilly’s neck.” Over the offseason, he went to Venezuela to pitch. But he didn’t feel capable of pitching effectively, and hung up his spikes.

Theodore Roosevelt Lilly III (yes, his son’s name is Theodore Roosevelt Lilly IV) had a better career than you remember.

Ted Lilly went 130-113 in 15 seasons. He retires with 26.4 WAR, very similar to Dave Stewart (26.0) and John Tudor (27.1), and Rick Reuschel (28.0). He actually looks even better by RA9-WAR, checking in at 30.4, because he consistently outpitched his components: he had a career .270 BABIP, and so even though he had a 100 xFIP- and 102 FIP-, his career ERA- was a much healthier 95.

But perhaps the most surprising thing is this: he was a power pitcher who no one thought of as a power pitcher. It probably had something to do with his floral name, which doesn’t scream “strikeouts.” He was a six-foot-tall lefty chosen in the 23rd round of the horrible 1996 draft (the Kris BensonTravis LeeBraden Looper draft) with a high-80s fastball — but that is misleading, because he was initially drafted in the 13th round in 1995 but did not sign, and when he was in the minor leagues, he dialed his fastball up as high as 92. He’s retiring with a K-rate of 20% and career earnings of more than $80 million. Ted Lilly sneaks up on you like that.

He is literally the only graduate of Yosemite High School to make the majors, and is the best player ever to come out of Fresno City college; the only other alum of particular note is Mark Gardner, a below-average starter who hung around the league for more than a decade. (There’s a pretty big asterisk, though: Tom Seaver enrolled at Fresno City, but then transferred to USC.)

Lilly was a good pitcher when healthy, but he often had trouble staying on the field. The Dodgers released him on August 2, and soon afterwards he appeared to have reached a deal to sign with the Giants, but it was scuttled after a medical exam. He made 11 DL trips over the course of his career, beginning with a labrum tear in 1999 when he was still in the minors. That’s why Lilly only made 331 starts in 15 years; he only made 30 starts seven times in his career, and only pitched 200 innings twice. He was a two-time All-Star.

Lilly’s 30 WAR is a lot more impressive when you consider that he did it in under 2000 innings. Among pitchers with fewer than 2200 innings since 1980, Lilly has the 24th-best RA9-WAR, similar to many other front-of-the rotation starters with injury problems, almost exactly in between Jack McDowell (34.1) and Ben Sheets (27.7). If Lilly had been able to make all of his scheduled starts and thrown another thousand innings, he might have ended up with 42-46 WAR, which would equal the career totals of pitchers like Al Leiter, Chris Carpenter, Brad Radke, and Kevin Millwood. Point is: when he was healthy, Lilly was quite a good pitcher.

Lilly grew up near Yosemite State Park, went to Yosemite High School, and continued to make his home nearby. He was originally drafted by the Dodgers in 1996, but was traded to the Expos as a minor leaguer in the Mark Grudzielanek trade. It was his first of five trades. Two years later, he was included in a trade for Hideki Irabu; two years after that, he was included in the massive three-team trade involving Jeff Weaver, Carlos Pena, and Jeremy Bonderman; the following year, he was traded for Bobby Kielty; and seven years after that, he was traded for Blake DeWitt.

That last trade brought him back to the Dodgers, allowing him to make his Dodger debut 14 years after they originally drafted him. He took advantage of the proximity to his home to sponsor a golf tournament and pitch in his high school’s annual alumni baseball game in 2012. After that came a live auction, as the local Sierra Star newspaper reported:

Two Dodger fans got into a mini-bidding war for four Dodger game tickets with field passes to watch batting practice and get autographs from Lilly and other Dodger players. The two fans ran the bidding up to $2,500 before the winner was announced. Lilly then offered the same package for $2,500 to the second bidder who said yes.

Lilly came to town with an autographed jersey from his San Luis Obispo neighbor, retired L.A. Kings ice hockey player Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky. The jersey fetched $1,700.

Then came the biggest auction item of the night donated by Oakhurst resident Bob Siebenberg, drummer for the rock legend band Supertramp (with more than 60 million albums sold) — his framed gold album “Paris” — that started a bidding war between Lilly and his good friend Ryan Dempster, starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Lilly outbid Dempster at $6,800 for the golden LP. But like the Dodger game tickets, Siebenberg steps to the mic and tells Dempster he has a similar gold album he would part with if would match Lilly’s bid. Dempster said yes.

Lilly apparently did not impress the Los Angeles Times as having a particularly memorable personality. “He was what you might call serious,” wrote Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times. “He answered questions in a direct manner that would have made Gen. Patton proud, but he always answered.” That impression is also conveyed by an interview he gave to a nervous interviewer from the Sierra Star, which yielded nuggets like these:

SNO: When you’re no longer playing ball professionally, how do you want to spend your time?

Lilly: Productively. Working hard is my responsibility to my kids.

SNO: One final question. How do you want people to remember you?

Lilly: I’d like to be remembered as someone who cares about other people.

Lilly announced his retirement in similarly laconic fashion, and noted his desire to coach. Whatever he does next, he had a fine career, better than nearly anyone else selected in 1996. And he’s certainly on the all-time list of the greatest players with flowers for names. Pete Rose is likely to maintain top position for the foreseeable future. For decades, 1953 MVP Al Rosen was second. But over the last 15 years, Ted Lilly has given him a run for his money. Not bad for a 23rd-round draft pick.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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Great piece and tribute. Any decent writer can pull together something compelling when a marquee name retires. It takes talent to do it when guys like Lilly or the hundreds of other regular players move on. Thank you, Alex.