It is hard to pinpoint what exactly it was about Liriano’s 2011 season that went so haywire.
Was it that he was under-conditioned, pitching through an injury, struggling with his mechanics, lost his confidence, lost his mind, lost his dog, all of the above, none of the above?
Regardless of why, there are two critical factors that go hand-in-hand which Liriano needs to improve on from his poor 2011 campaign:
(1) Command of his fastball and (2) Getting ahead of hitters.
In 2011, Liriano demonstrated some of the worst command of the heater than almost every starter. Of all qualified pitchers (those who had thrown a minimum of 1,000 fastballs), Liriano’s 53% strike rate was the lowest. What’s more is that when he started his opponents off with the fastball -- which he did a little over half of all match-ups -- he managed to throw it for strike just 44% of the time, also the lowest in baseball. Meanwhile, in 2010, the left-hander was much closer to the league average of 64% by throwing his fastball for a strike 63% of the time (61% on the first pitch).
Intertwined with the command of his fastball is his ability to get ahead of hitters. Two seasons ago, Liriano threw strike one 61% of the time, putting his opponents at a quick disadvantage perhaps enticing them to swing at more out-of-zone offerings (34% out-of-swing rate in 2010, highest of his career) and more swings in general (a 46.5% swing rate). In 2010, however, Liriano wandered aimlessly. In just 49% of his match-ups was he able to achieve strike one – the worst rate in baseball. And it wasn’t just the first pitch last year, either. In 79% of his at-bats he was able to get a strike in one of the first two pitches (the worst mark in baseball and well below the 85% league average).
If Liriano makes significant strides in these two areas in 2012, considering his potent slider and improving change, there’s no reason not to think that he can’t rebound to his 2010 self.
Which brings us to his outing on Wednesday night.
Shortly before Christmas, GM Terry Ryan said that Liriano was not going to throw in the winter leagues but rather he would pitch at the Twins’ Dominican Academy and build his arm strength there. This was largely deflating to those who had witnessed how poorly he came into spring camp a year ago after skipping winter ball. However, midday yesterday the Liga de Beisbol website announced that Liriano would be starting for the Leones del Escogido.
Now, considering it was his first outing against live hitters since September 24, the proper amount of slack needs to be cut. Keep in mind there is plenty of time until April 1. Still, you have to watch for signs of improvement, especially in the aforementioned areas of (1) and (2). Against a C-list lineup (with Hiram Bocachica, who has been playing the Mexican Leagues the previous two seasons, batting third), Liriano’s fastball looked erratic and he struggled to locate the catcher’s target. In similar fashion to 2011, he mixed in his two-seamed fastball to right-handed opponents which ran up-and-away. Also like last season, of the eight batters he faced, he fell behind all but two. In all, one and two-thirds innings of work and 37 pitches required.
To reiterate, Liriano has plenty of time left to re-establish the command of his fastball and work at striking first against opponents. I'm not going to chastise him for one outing, however, if you were looking for early signs of progress in his first start in the winter leagues, you didn't get it.