By Jonathan Hodgson
(Photo: Angela B Photography)
Adaptation has proven to be no problem for southpaw Conor Lillis-White to this point in his career, and he’s facing more as he heads south to Arizona for his fourth spring training as a professional, but his first as a member of his new club.
Lillis-White, a left-handed pitcher with the Dawgs in 2014, was originally drafted in the 32nd round by the Los Angeles Angels in 2015, following his senior season at the University of British Columbia. This off-season, after four largely successful seasons with the Angels, rising to triple-A midway through 2018, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs.
“I am very appreciative of the opportunity that the Angels gave me,” Lillis-White said. “It was a great organization for me and they were helpful in my career and I’m going to miss a lot of people there, but at the end of the day you want to go where you’re wanted, so if the Cubs feel that they can present me with a better opportunity, I’m certainly excited about that, and I think it’s pretty neat to be able to join a pretty iconic organization, so I’m pretty excited.”
The imposing 6’5’’ left-hander came to Okotoks in 2014, following his spectacular junior year at UBC where he went 9-0 with a 0.46 ERA. In eight regular season starts with the Dawgs, Lillis-White went 3-2 with 32 strikeouts in 37 innings. He then dazzled in two playoff starts, allowing one run over 12 innings with 15 strikouts.
Lillis-White says he was encouraged by both coaches and teammates to play for the Dawgs.
“(UBC head coach) Terry McKaig was the one who was adamant that I go to Okotoks,” Lillis-White said. “He thought that it would be a good experience for me and he had nothing but good things to say when he talked to me and told me that he wanted me to go there,” he said.
McKaig, a member of the 2019 induction class of the Dawgs Hall of Fame at the Dawgs upcoming awards banquet on February 2, was the head baseball coach at UBC from 1997 to 2015 and is now UBC’s director of baseball as the program has broadened to include youth teams, community camps, and new state-of-the-art facilities.
UBC and the Dawgs have established a long and successful partnership, dating all the way back to the Dawgs first season in the then WMBL (now the Western Canadian Baseball League) in 2003 when the team was based in Calgary, with many premiere players and future major league draft picks from the Thunderbirds program playing their summer collegiate seasons with the Dawgs.
Jerod Bartnik was an outfielder at UBC who played three seasons with the Dawgs in 2012-14. He and Lillis-White are close friends and were roommates at UBC.
“(Bartnik) gave me a pretty easy sales pitch to come to Okotoks,” Lillis-White recalled. “He loved his time with the Dawgs too and we were roommates in Okotoks as well, so I certainly had a lot of familiarity going in. I was fortunate enough to be associated with the UBC program who has a good reputation in Okotoks, so when I came in, I was able to mesh into the team dynamic with the help of those networks and college teammates.”
The calibre of play wasn’t a surprise to Lillis-White, who pitched for the league’s Moose Jaw Miller Express in 2012, but he says that playing for the Dawgs at Seaman Stadium presented an exciting new challenge.
“My summer in Okotoks was my first opportunity to play in a really exciting environment. I think what stood out to me was the fans’ presence and the stadium and really getting to play in front of a lot of fans for the first time in my career, which was a little bit of an adjustment at first,” Lillis-White said. “There were times where you get a little more anxious than you first anticipated but I think it was a good experience for me in getting used to playing in an environment with more than just a couple hundred people, which was kind of what I was more attuned to prior to my time in Okotoks.”
The learning experiences were not limited to the mound as Lillis-White explained that the professional style schedule of the WCBL was far different than the college season, which brought marathon weekends often with doubleheaders on consecutive days, bookended by long bus trips.
“The WCBL poses more of a professional travel schedule as far as the duration of your travel and how often you’re travelling, so that was definitely a valuable experience for me and some of the things I learned there I definitely carried with me into the professional ranks.”
Lillis-White returned to UBC and had a strong senior season, leading up to his draft selection to the Angels.
Soon after joining the organization, the Angels informed him of their plan to convert him into a relief pitcher. Lillis-White says that while he didn’t prefer the bullpen at first, his college coaches had prepared him for this eventuality, and he learned a great deal about himself in the process.
“I really enjoyed starting but I think my skill set was more a fit for the bullpen,” Lillis-White explained. “I think that with my skil lset, being more of a two-pitch guy, I think I was a little more prepared for relief than I was for starting, especially at the professional level. It poses a pretty great challenge facing a lineup multiple times, so I preferred the opportunity to come in more frequently and throw an inning or two,” he said.
After simplifying his repertoire to his low-90s fastball and a curveball, Lillis-White was able to move quickly through the low minors, reaching triple-A by mid-season 2018.
“Triple-A is the first level where I’d say about half the hitters in the opposing lineup have time in the big leagues, so you’re really facing some of the best hitters in the world so that poses a great challenge,” Lillis-White said. “Hitters have a plan at the plate. They’ll take pitches that hitters at lower levels would swing at. They have a clear pitch in mind and when they see it, they hammer it.”
Lillis-White faced an extra challenge pitching in the thin air of Salt Lake City and the ballparks of the Pacific Coast League.
“I’m not particularly a ground ball specialist, so when I’m pitching in ballparks where the ball flies, I have to be a little bit more alert to my command than when I was at double-A (in Mobile, AL) where the air was a bit thicker and we were playing at sea level for the most part.”
In his 26 appearances in the PCL, Lillis-White recorded a very respectable 3.86 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 37.1 innings pitched.
After the deal, it appears likely that Lillis-White will begin the 2019 season with the Cubs’ triple-A affiliate in Des Moines, IA.
After a long and steady climb that formed its foundation in minor baseball in Toronto, college at UBC, and a summer-collegiate season in Okotoks, Lillis-White has climbed each rung of the minor league ladder and now finds himself just one step away from donning Cubs pinstripes at fabled Wrigley Field. While he is not letting himself get wrapped up in those thoughts, he is not shying away from them either.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about being in the big leagues,” Lillis-White reflected. “It’s been a long road and I’m certainly proud of what I’ve accomplished to this point, but (the major leagues) have been my goal for a long time, and the closer you get, the more it becomes your focus,” he said.
Lillis-White shares his mindset heading into the new season.
“I’m definitely aspiring to be in the majors, and to be there soon, but at the same time I definitely recognize that everything is going to be contingent on results, especially with being a later round draft pick,” Lillis-White explained. “I don’t feel that anything will be given to me. It will all have to be earned, so it definitely focuses me and my presence in the moment and forces me to treat each day as a very important task,” he said.
“I think that when I do get the opportunity, I’ll be ready, but at the same time you have to do the best you can every day just to get that opportunity and it’s not something I take lightly,” Lillis-White concluded.