Monday, July 27, 2009

Identifying Francisco Liriano's Problem

Brace yourself for an overwhelmingly large understatement:  Something is wrong with Francisco Liriano.
At 4-10 with a pear-shaped 5.56 ERA, Liriano has had a less than successful season to date.  Following an outing in which he had just allowed three home runs - all by right-handed batters - manager Ron Gardenhire offered this as insight to reporters when asked what Liriano can do to clear the perceived mental hurdle:  
"I think he gets out of whack and just overthrows the ball.  You can call that mental; you can call that whatever you want. It's a matter of remaining in control of yourself on the mound. It's speeding up the game instead of slowing it down. Trying to make the perfect pitch. Instead of hitting the glove he tries to make it super nasty."
Nowhere in that explanation was any acknowledgement to the fact that he is being destroyed by right-handed batters.  After limiting right-handed batters to a fairly average .266/.335/.410 batting line in 250 plate appearances in 2008, Liriano has taken a noticeable turn for the worse in '09.   This year, right-handed opponents have been slaughtering the ball, slugging over 100 points higher (.516) and have tagged him for 17 of his 18 home runs.  Sheer obliteration. 
Normally when this sort of favoritism to one particular subset alarm bells go "a-ringy-dingy-dingy" but back in May, Liriano referenced another problem that laid the foundation for the continued cited excuse.  "I think I overthrow when I've got men on base," Liriano said. "That's been a big problem for me all year long. So I got to just calm down. I'm rushing too much."  (There's that catchphrase again, "overthrowing".  Anyone else feel like they are getting a glimpse of how Rick Anderson talks to his pitchers?).  A month later in June Joe Christensen highlighted just how big of a problem it would eventually become: 
Nobody on base: .250/.318/.406
Men on base: .260/.338/.374

Nobody on base: .243/.314/.399
Men on base: .325/.413/.595

If this were truly a runners-on-base problem, Liriano would show signs of struggles against left-handed batters too right?  Behind-the-scenes data reveal that the hitters that are doing the most damage with runners on base are once again - you guessed it - right-handed.   While lefties were slugging a handful of points higher when Liriano was throwing from the stretch, righties raised their slugging percentage almost TWO HUNDRED POINTS when a teammate was on the basepaths.   Annihilated.  Spanked. 
Is Ron Gardenhire expecting us to believe that Liriano is doing something "mentally" different to just one set of hitters?  That he is only overthrowing when someone is in the right-handed batters box?  As the old saying goes "Don't piss on me and tell me that it's raining".  There is only a certain amount of credence I usually lend to something being a "mental" problem in baseball because there always comes a point where psychological gives way to physiological.  After all, it's not as if he's throwing telepathically up there; there are actual real live muscles involved.  At the end of the day, Liriano does something physically different with right-handed batters than their counterparts.  
Two things that we accept as true are that A) Liriano is having troubles pitching to right-handers and B) the tribulations are exacerbated while he is pitching from the stretch.  To summarize, Liriano throws the same basic set of pitches and does so effectively to one type of batter but completely disintegrates when the opposite digs in and more so when a runner is on base. 
Breaking down the Pittsburgh outing through pitchf/x at, you will notice a slight difference in the way Liriano approaches the two groups.  In this particular start, Liriano allowed two home runs to Pittsburgh's right-handed hitting Andy LaRoche and Andrew McClutchen.  The top graph represents his release point while facing right-handed batters and the second graph is the release point against left-handed batters.   One thing you should note between the two release points is the difference between where Liriano lets go of the ball to a right-hander versus left-hander.  While both are thrown at six feet in height, he vast majority of pitches thrown to right-handers are released between one and one-and-a-half horizontal feet away from the center line.  For the lefties, Liriano throws the ball around one-and-a-half to two feet away from the center line. 

This allows for an approximate a quarter-foot in horizontal release on average.  Even this seemingly butterfly wing flap has sizable ramifications and greatly changes the movement on the horizontal axis.  Focus on his fastball as that has been the pitch that has given his the most problems (-2.04 wFB/C): 

The first graph, Liriano delivering to right-handed batters, shows that the horizontal movement in his fastball (green line) travels about 1.25 feet on average as it spins out of hand sixty feet-six inches away.  Meanwhile when Liriano throws the same fastball to left-handed batters it moves an additional 0.75 horizontal feet.  Make no mistakes - for something traveling more than 90-mph this is significant. Therefore, Liriano's quarter-foot release difference is costing him about a half-foot in fastball movement and equates to a flatter fastball for right-handers to feast upon.    
In the event that you might think a different release point might be standard for pitchers, here is Glen Perkins's July 17th start against the Rangers.  Note the fluid, mirrored release for both sides of the plate:
In his July 9th start against the Yankees, a game in which the right-handed batting Mark Teixiera went yard, Liriano demonstrated the same habits: 

Same release, same results.  Which brings us to Anaheim in his most recent start on July 24th.  In this five and a third inning debacle, Liriano surrendered home runs to the right-handed hitting Robb Quinlan, Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis.  "It's very difficult. I'm trying, you know, to put it behind me, but sometimes that doesn't happen," said Liriano following the start, "I'm just thinking too much about what happened in my last start. I don't know, I just think I have to be mentally stronger, not get too frustrated, try to come back and make some better pitches." Below you will see the same pattern of release, albeit with a small sample of left-handed pitches (Bobby Abreu was the only left-handed batting Angel that night):
Clearly he's doing something physically different with his release point that is adversely effecting his fastball movement to right-handed hitters.  Judging from the previous quotes, it would appear that the Twins believe that a rain dance, voodoo or a session on the couch are in order to fix what ails Liriano.  The real solution requires extensive bullpen sessions with someone standing in the right-handed batters box so Liriano regains comfort and commits his motion to muscle memory for either handed hitters.