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Ryan Lillie Interview: Marlin on the Rise

Ryan Lillie was signed out of UC Riverside, where he was coached by Troy Percival.

Lillie touches 94 MPH on the gun, pictured here while pitching for UC-Riverside.

This offseason, Fish Stripes is profiling Miami’s best and brightest up-and-coming prospects. Today’s player is Murrieta, California native Ryan Lillie.

Lillie is a 6’, 210 lb. right-handed pitcher who played his college ball at UC Riverside, where was recruited and eventually signed as a catcher. After reporting, coach Troy Percival noticed something special about Lillie, something that reminded Percival a little of himself:

From the first time I put him on the mound, it was just a natural. It reminded me of me, because the first time I jumped on the mound, I was able to throw strikes. I was able to spin a breaking ball. Once I saw that, I said, 'We're just going to work mechanically. - Percival, courtesy of mlb.com

And just like that, Lillie was tagged as the Highlanders’ closer. He responded by striking out 27 batters in 25 innings and nailing down six saves. His 1.68 WHIP and 4.32 ERA would come down a little in Lillie’s sophomore season, when Lillie went 4-3 in 30 relief appearances, with seven saves, a 4.15 ERA, a 1.62 WHIP, and 30 strikeouts in 30.1 innings pitched. Although control was an issue, with 25 walks, Lillie actually decreased his number of walks in his 2017 campaign despite pitching more than double the innings.

Lillie’s final college season would see him post a 2-7 record and a 4.69 ERA, starting in 10 of his 20 appearances and also saving four games. He struck out 80 in 71 frames, walking just 20 batters and shrinking his WHIP down to 1.34. He was good enough that the Marlins spent their fifth-round pick on him, with the 149th selection off the board.

After signing below slot-value, Lillie was shipped to the GCL Marlins, where he lasted just two appearances before Miami promoted him to the Batavia Muckdogs in the short-season-A New York-Penn League. Lillie showed his mettle for the most part despite a hard-luck 0-5 record, whiffing 27 in 31 frames while getting his WHIP down to 1.258, better than his best mark while in college. He had a 4.35 ERA with the Dogs, and walked just five batters.

Lillie got a late season callup to the Greensboro Grasshoppers, and struck out four of the seven batters he faced at the higher “A” level team. He’s currently ranked as the number 18 prospect in Miami’s system.

I had an opportunity to catch up with Lillie on Friday night, and he was gracious enough to answer a bunch of my questions.

Lillie was out finishing up delivering Christmas trees when I first called him, a seasonal job.

Fish Stripes: That’s really a seasonal thing, delivering Christmas trees. Is that sort of a labour of love, or something that you think you’ll be doing throughout your career?

Ryan Lillie: I’ve developed a really good relationship with the owners. It’s funny because if it’s seasonal for us, it’s seasonal for them, too. When I told them I played baseball they were all about it, then we started to get to know each other. When they said they were from Kannapolis, I was like, “No way, we play them like 1,000 times a year,” it’s true, I looked at the schedule. The next day, she had a schedule out, saying, “I’ll be at that one, and that one, and that one...” It keeps me busy, and I’m being smart about it, not lifting anything overhead. This is my first go around of the offseason and I’m already ready to go out and play, so I need something to keep me down a little bit. I love this job, and I did the pumpkin patch as well.

Fish Stripes: That is pretty seasonal, but Christmas will be over soon, then you’ll have nothing to do for two months.

Lillie: The next two months are all about baseball.

Fish Stripes: Do you think you’ll start out with Greensboro this year?

Lillie: I can’t say yes or no, I’m not 100% sure. I’m hoping that the late callup was kind of a....this is where you’ll be to start the full year next year. So I’m hoping to go out in spring training and get after it a little bit and hopefully end up back in Greensboro. It was gorgeous out there. I only got to play in two home games. I was on the road for the rest of it but I loved it and I can’t wait to play there again.

Fish Stripes: We recently found out that Batavia may be losing the Muckdogs. What was your impression of the NYPL and how did you like playing at Dwyer Stadium?

Lillie: It’s something that I wasn’t used to. I’m from southern California where baseball is big and you always have a really nice field to play on, you always have a lot of fans. Everything is always big. When I got to New York, population of I don’t know how many people (Batavia had a population of 6,809 for the 2010 census), it was kind of a culture shock to play in a small city like that where there’s a bunch of old season ticket holders. That part was cool, because everybody would do their research. They’re older people who just wait for baseball to come back to Batavia so they would know who’s playing for them. It was fun. It was so cool to say that I played in Batavia, New York. I loved it. Whenever I play baseball I love it. It was a grind for sure to get up and get in the locker room and go play out there because it was a smaller venue and I wasn’t used to that, but by the end of my time it’s really cool to look back on.

Fish Stripes: I’ve been meaning to get up to Batavia, but I live here in southern Alabama, so I only get to see the Jumbo Shrimp. I go four times a year, so I’m hoping you get promoted twice more.

Lillie: That’s the goal.

Fish Stripes: Can you tell us a little about working with Troy Percival?

Lillie: (laughing) Oh, man, Percy, that’s my boy right there. I’m an Angels fan, I grew up 30 minutes from the stadium, my dad grew up in Anaheim, the Angels were my team. They still are, but I’m still a Marlin. I grew up watching Percy, and when I found out I was about to get coached by him it was awesome. It was the best thing ever. To get to play for him for three years was awesome. My freshman year, I was a catcher. I committed to Riverside as a catcher, and once he got me, he saw the arm, he saw the mentality, and he was like, “You’re a pitcher, take the bat away from Lillie, put him on the mound, he’s a pitcher.” So over winter break, around this time in my freshman year, he had me hop on the mound and throw maybe 20 pitches or so, flip a couple of breaking balls, whatever I had he wanted to see it. I got done in the pen and gave him the ball and he said, “All right, you’re my closer.”

I was a freshman in the Big West. I grew up watching Fullerton, Cal-Poly Tech, San Luis Obispo, all these big name teams and I was thinking, I may have to come in against one of these teams with a one-run lead on a Friday night. What a shellshock. He really took me under his wing. I get made fun of to this day by some of my teammates. They call Percival my Daddy. They call me Percy Jr., after practice they’d ask - “What are you and Daddy having for dinner?” But it’s awesome because they were able to see what a great relationship that we had. I love the man to death, he’s my go-to. He’s someone who loves talking baseball, loves talking pitching, and really, who better to talk to than someone who spent 14 years closing in the bigs? (Percival closed 358 games in the majors, 11th all time). Like I said, I love the guy to death and I appreciate everything he did for me.

Fish Stripes: You went pretty quickly from a catcher to a four-pitch pitcher, with a 94 MPH fastball and above-average secondary pitches. Although most of your experience has been as a closer, the Marlins have you pegged as a future starter.

Lillie: He (Percival) told me I was gonna close, that I was his closer, that’s the mentality that he saw. He knew I could handle that role. He wanted to throw me out there without a safety net and teach me how to fail as a pitcher, all the ups and downs of a pitcher. And by my junior year, we knew the draft was within reach for me and he wanted the best for me and for the team. I proposed that he let me be a starter. Let me work my ass off and become a starter physically and let me do this for you. He gave me the ok and we went from there. I pitched when I was younger, but nothing as structured as this. I have my pops to thank for teaching me the breaking ball, the changeup, all this stuff.

Once I got to be a pitcher every day and not worry about catching, hitting, getting drills and tee work in, everything kind of went through the roof. When I had to work as a starter, that was my biggest change overall. I didn’t have to worry about getting a few guys out, I had to get every guy out three times to have a successful night. It really helped me learn pitching as a whole.

Fish Stripes: When you went from college to pro, your metrics actually improved. A lot of guys making the jump from collegiate ball to pro ball fall off, but you were the opposite. Your WHIP dropped from 1.48 way down to 1.14. Strikeouts were consistent. You struck out 34 in 36 innings, and a strikeout per inning is kind of a benchmark for excellence. Can you tell me how your approach to the game has changed since signing a professional contract?

Lillie: It’s changed significantly. In college you’re worried about school, all these different things and sometimes it’s a valid excuse to say, “Hey, I had to worry about school here and couldn’t give 90,000% to baseball.” When I got to pro ball. This is what every kid dreams of. I made it, I worked my butt off but I’m not done yet. And now all I have to worry about is what time I have to be at the field tomorrow. It’s the coolest thing ever because I’m a baseball rat. I love nothing more than baseball. When I get to do that every single day, and get paid for it, it just takes my love for the game even higher. I’m not saying I did it for the money, but getting to play every day is the coolest thing ever. I eat it up.

Fish Stripes: Was it hard getting displaced from California to an east coast team?

Lillie: Not really. The hardest thing is not knowing anyone in the stands, but again, I get to play baseball every day and that’s what matters. It’s awesome and cool that I get to play in different parts of the world. I thrive on it. I love putting on a new uniform, getting new colors, playing in different places, small towns, big towns, playing in the south, seeing how people talk, the different foods. There’s nothing negative about it at all.

Fish Stripes: The towns get slightly bigger at each stop. From Greensboro, next up is Jupiter, then Jacksonville, and Jacksonville’s pretty darn big.

Lillie: I grew up halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, so I like big cities. I love the city vibe but the countryside is pretty good too.

Fish Stripes: Did you know that you’re not the only 21-year-old Ryan Lillie in organized baseball right now?

Lillie: No way.

Fish Stripes: There’s a Ryan Lillie that just finished his season at Monmouth College.

Lillie: Spelled the same way?

Fish Stripes: Yes

Lillie: Hopefully I’m better.

Fish Stripes: I’m pretty sure you are. (the other Lillie is also a pitcher, 1-0, 2.55 ERA in 16 games for Monmouth).

Do you have any strange pre-game rituals? A lot of baseball guys are superstitious.

Lillie: I’m a pretty big music guy. You’ll always catch me with my headphones on. I’m not a big talker when I’m about to start. I always play the same song at least 10 times before I make a start. That song is cliche, but he’s been my boy since day one, but it’s Lose Yourself, by Eminem. I’ve been playing it before games since I was in the Pony League, it really gets me going. I could listen to it 1,000 times. I have it on repeat before I go out onto the field.

Fish Stripes: If you play in the big leagues for 20 years, do you think that will ever change.

Lillie: It won’t change at all.

Fish Stripes: Cats or dogs?

Lillie: (slight hesitation) Dogs.

Fish Stripes: Favorite movie?

Lillie: Eight Mile.

Fish Stripes: What kind of hobbies do you have during the offseason?

Lillie: Out here in California, there’s not much to do that doesn’t cost a shit-ton of money. I love fishing, there’s nothing out here to hunt. I like to go out to the movies, I’m a movie guy. There’s a spot, an old town called Temecula right down the street. It’s called old town and me and my buddies all go down there and hang out and catch up. Like I said, not a lot to do that doesn’t cost a lot of money. I also like golfing, but I never keep score. It’s just a lot of fun.

Fish Stripes: So being a movie guy, are you excited for the new Star Wars movie?

Lillie: No. Not a Star Wars guy. Not a big cartoon guy. I don’t really follow Star Wars. I may get hate mail, and I’m sorry if I offend anyone. I know there’s a lot of people excited for it, but it’s not my thing. I hope you’re not a Star Wars fan.

Fish Stripes: I can take it.

Lillie was an entertaining interview, and a real personable guy. If I were an oddsmaker, I would say that he will probably start 2018 with the Hoppers. Normal progression would see him in Miami between 2020 and 2022.

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