The Second Coming
In his first start back with the Minnesota Twins following an April demotion, Francisco Liriano set out to prove the he is indeed the pitcher reflective in his minor league numbers. Star Tribune's Jim Souhan recently penned a column speculating on the trade deadline hours after it past. Souhan bravely suggested that Liriano should have been the prime trade bait in the efforts to net a right-handed slugger: "Fans remember Liriano as unhittable and charming, and he has scythed through the International League this summer. Talk to someone other than a stat geek, though, and you'll hear that Liriano is facing mediocre competition, is throwing most of his fastballs at 91 mph, and will not be the dominant force fans remember, even if he stays healthy." Whether your a stat geek or curmudgeonly scout it is hard to deny that in the past three months Francisco Liriano has shown steady improvement. Unfortunately the only way to show it in writing is through the use of demon statistics: In 39 innings in May, Liriano walked 6.5% and struck out 17.6%. In 36.2 innings in June, he walked 5.2% and struck out 24.7%. July was by far his best of the year, walking 3.9% and striking out 32.8% in 34 innings. By all accounts, he was attacking the strike zone and winning the match-ups in front of him regardless if they were the 1998 Yankees on the best kind of steroids or a Walter Matthau coached gaggle of misfits.
"I've seen him a lot in the last couple months down in the Minor Leagues, and he goes out and pitches his heart out. He has been dominant down there. He's been striking people out when he needs to strike people out, getting ground balls when he needs to get ground balls. He's doing an excellent job. I hope to see when he comes back [Sunday] what he is going to do, because I know everybody is going to be happy here." said his Red Wings and now Twins teammate Randy Ruiz.
In Souhan's mind, the pathway to the postseason would have been to ship Liriano to Seattle for Adrian Beltre so that Beltre could hit 3-run home runs for the Twins only to have Livan Hernandez give up 6 runs thereby deleting Beltre's contributions.
Thankfully people smarter than Souhan are at the helm of the Twins.
Souhan's logic is flawed as one bat for two years in exchange for the valuable left-handed starting pitcher would have been a steep price for an organization to pay. However the basis for his for wanting to package Liriano is reasonable. The words "Tommy John recovery" makes people cringe - especially after his first introduction back into the Majors following his entire year off.
In his April 24th start against the Oakland A's, one that produced six earned runs in two-thirds of an inning of work, I charted his pitch location and types with the assistance of MLB's Pitchf/x system. The data showed that several problems persisted with the left-hander from Dominican Republic. First, the findings showed that Liriano had a significant decrease in his velocity, throwing his fastball in the 88-91 mph range (consistently under 90 mph in that game). Fangraph.com shows that he was throwing his fastball 94.7 mph in 2005 and 2006 while averaging just 90 in his three starts in 2008. Secondly, in addition to a decline in velocity that day, Liriano had as much control as a University of Florida frat boy on spring break: 48% of his pitches were outside the strike zone, just 4 of the 9 batters faced were met with a first pitch strike (two of which were gifts from swings on high fastballs). In his dominating 2006 season, 67% of his pitches were strikes. As opposed to 2006 when he was getting the first pitch strike 60% of the time, this season he began the count 0-1 only 45% of the time in 2008 - a 15% decrease in the amount of match-ups starting in the pitcher's favor. While it may appear that there is a negligible difference between 0-1 and 1-0, but American League batters are hitting just .263/.279/.355 after the count starts at 0-1 and hitting .280/.393/.451 when the count starts in their favor. Therefore on average there exists a greater than 10% increase in the opponent reaching base if the first pitch was a ball.
What contributed most to the six earned runs that day was the fact that when Liriano did locate the strike zone (52%), it was down the heart of the plate (20%) with the substandard fastball with little movement. On top of that his off-speed pitches were not able to masque the fastball. He threw his change-up as the set-up pitch that game and did not get chase swings from the very patient Oakland lineup. The slider, once a golden bullet in his arsonal, is now thrown at 79 mph down from the hard 87 mph that resembled a fastball coming out of his hand only to drop away from the left-handed swing and tie up a right-handed batter as it dove into their ankles. Now it lacked the sharp break and speed to make it effective. In that game he threw just one slider to Rajai Davis. It registered 81 mph on the radar gun.
In the post-game press conference after the Oakland game, manager Ron Gardenhire spoke to the media amidst all indication that Liriano had been given his last start in Minnesota in long time. "We've got some discussing to do right here," Gardenhire said. "We've seen him and know where we are at with him. That's very important. So the comeback continues. No one said it was going to be easy, and it's not an easy thing when you sit out that long. We believe this young man is going to be a very, very good pitcher for us. It's going to take a lot of work, and we'll see where we are at over the next few days and make some decisions on what to do next."
After 10.3 innings of work with a 11.32 era and 13 walks to 7 strikeouts, the Twins gave Francisco Liriano the additional time to regain his feel for the mound. Liriano responded well to the demotion. It was his last ten starts with the Red Wings where Liriano went 9-0 with a 2.51 era. Most encouraging was his 73 strikeouts and 9 walks in 64.2 innings of work which prompted a recall (after his agent filing charges that the organization was intentionally holding him back first).
Nearly three plus months and a time zone to the east later, Liriano found himself once on the mound in a Twins uniform, in control of a day game. In a broad stroke, the results (6 innings, 3 hits, 3 walks, 5 strikeouts and no runs) show that improvement was made while in Rochester. The MLB Pitchf/x data reflects the same: His fastball, one that he threw 62 times, was constantly in the 90-92 mph range indicating that he has gained 2 to 3 mph in between major league starts. He threw the slider 19 times with greater velocity, between 81-83 mph - another sign that his arm is closer to recovery from the Tommy John - plus he was able to incite missed swing four times and only had one slider put into play (Jamey Carroll put a grounder into play that Brendan Harris overthrew Nick Punto on). This progress suggests that he is closing the gap between what he was and what he currently is. There are also plenty of red flags amid the data. Just 8 of his 24 match-ups began with a first pitch strike, leading to more 1-0 counts. In addition to that, he was out of the strike zone (66%) even more than his April 24th game (48%). These kind of numbers often spell large quantities of runs for opponents as Liriano was not in complete command of his game. "Triple-A baseball's different than here," Gardenhire said. "There's a few veteran hitters, but a lot of guys swing, swing, swing. As we go along, we're going to see some veteran teams that don't swing. They're going to take pitches, and those are going to be challenges for him to throw more pitches over the plate."
But what differed most between the August 3rd Liriano and the April 24th Liriano was where he was locating his pitches. Against Oakland, Liriano elevated too many pitches as 20% thrown were in the top-half of the strike zone or higher. That kind of placement of a 89 mph fastball typically end up as line drives or flyballs. On Sunday, Liriano threw just 9% of his pitches in the top half of the strike zone, tossing 55% in the lower half of the strike zone, a region more prone to inducing groundballs. Finding the zone and keeping it low will be the recipe for success for Liriano.