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September 15, 2011

Resident Fantasy Genius

What's Wrong with Liriano?

by Derek Carty

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What happened to Francisco Liriano? Three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Liriano finally seemed to have regained his old form in 2010. His velocity returned, he was inducing ground balls, and he incited some talk of receiving Cy Young votes (which he managed to do). His season was very good by traditional standards (14 W, 3.62 ERA) and exceptional by non-traditional standards (2.66 FIP), leading some to forecast him as the 2011 Cy Young winner. Things were looking up for the Twins’ ace.

Unfortunately, 2011 couldn’t have played out more differently. Aside from an incredibly lucky no-hitter, Liriano has been an absolute mess, and it’s not the James Shields circa 2010 kind of mess where much of it can be chalked up to bad luck; Liriano’s 4.55 FIP is right in line with his 4.84 ERA.

*Liriano posted just two strikeouts and six walks in his no-hitter. No pitcher in history has thrown a no-hitter with so few strikeouts and so many walks. For pitchers who posted six-plus walk no-hitters, the fewest number of strikeouts one amassed was Dwight Gooden’s five in 1996.

So what’s Liriano doing differently? It’s easy to place the blame on the pitching-to-contact philosophy that manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson tried to force upon him earlier in the year, which was a terrible idea from the start and seemed to be based upon their incorrect assumption that strikeouts raise a hurler’s pitch count.

"We've told him forever that he's a strikeout pitcher," Gardenhire said before Wednesday's game. "We understand that he can strike people out, but if he really wants to become a pitcher, pitch to contact."

After frequently watching Liriano's pitch counts rise in 2010 and during spring training this past March, Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have emphasized pitching to contact earlier in counts to their stud left-hander.

The problem is, strikeouts don’t elevate a pitcher’s pitch count; walks do. Of course, pitching to contact will also reduce walks (in theory), but Liriano seemed to have his walks under control last season, so why mess with a good thing?

While this is the easy explanation, there’s more going on with Liriano than being conflicted about how to approach batters. After cranking it up over 94 mph to match his pre-surgery levels last season, Liriano’s velocity is now down to his post-op 2008/2009 levels of 91-92 mph. But what some failed to notice was that by last September, Liriano’s velocity had slipped back to the post-op level, and after reportedly “showing up to spring training with his arm out of shape,” it has maintained that level throughout 2011. Additionally, Liriano’s changeup is sinking more than an inch less than it did in 2010 (according to PITCHf/x). Along with the decreased velocity separation from his fastball, this could be one of the reasons why it’s inducing whiffs on just 14.7 percent of swings (down from 18.9 percent last year). Throw all this together, and you get the worst strikeout rate of Liriano’s career.

This has likely also played a part in an even bigger problem for the lefty: walks. You see, Liriano’s walk rate is also the worst of his career: 12.7 percent, up from 7.2 percent last season. He is having a difficult time finding the strike zone in 2011, putting the ball in the zone just 40 percent of the time; league average and Liriano’s career average both stand near 45.5 percent. When you combine more balls out of the zone with his less effective stuff, the problem escalates because hitters aren’t chasing. The table below shows the percentage of out-of-zone pitches that batters are both swinging and missing at:

Year

OOZ Whiff%

2006

18%

2008

14%

2009

13%

2010

15%

2011

12%

When 60 percent of your pitches are being thrown out of the zone and only 12 percent of those are being swung on and missed, your strikeout rate is going to fall. Additionally, since batters are offering at these out-of-zone pitches less this year (28.6 percent) than they were last year (34.4 percent), these pitches are simply hitting the catcher’s glove for ball four.

The final piece of the “what’s wrong with Liriano?” puzzle is his ground-ball rate. While his 2011 rate of 50 percent is significantly above where it was in his two mediocre post-TJ years (42 percent), it’s also significantly lower than where it was last year (56 percent). Liriano throws two fastballs—a four-seamer and a two-seamer—that he uses a combined 50 percent of the time. If MLBAM’s PITCHf/x classifications are to be believed, how Liriano divides that 50 percent among them has changed dramatically this season. Last season, the split was 87/13 in favor of the two-seamer. This year it’s been reversed, 64/36 in favor of the four-seamer. While neither pitch induces many whiffs, the two-seamer is much better at inducing grounders. So in what has amounted to little advantage in strikes, the shift has resulted in more fly balls and, consequently, more home runs. Though there are still kinks with MLBAM’s pitch classifications, especially in terms of differentiating fastballs, there definitely seems to have been a shift (and if not, it means his two-seamer is sinking less, which is even worse), and Liriano is certainly allowing more balls in the air.

All in all, Liriano has been an absolute mess this year. Every important peripheral has worsened, and his stuff appears to have worsened as well. Some scouts believe his issues to be largely mechanical, but even if that’s true, the Twins haven’t been able to fix him this year. So what are the Twinkies to do with their now arbitration-eligible former ace? That’s no easy decision when dealing with a player who has already had one major surgery, has had three stints on the DL since (including two this season for his left shoulder), and has been wildly inconsistent in his effectiveness.

While Liriano may be the perfect candidate for a change of scenery given his difference in philosophy with manager Ron Gardenhire and his potential mechanical problems, the Twins said at the trade deadline that they had no interest in dealing him, and it’s hard to see any team ponying up the kind of return you’d want for a potential ace after the year he’s had. Unless Minnesota wants to sell low on a guy with such enormous potential, offering him arbitration seems like the best route.

A win is worth a little under $5 million, and despite his poor season, Liriano’s WARP has still been 1.0 this year. MLB Trade Rumors projects Liriano to command a $5.7 salary in 2012, so it seems like an easy decision to splurge for the extra $0.7 million on a guy who was worth close to four times what he’ll command just a season ago. Velocity doesn’t usually magically reappear, but Liriano is still just 27 and has the whole offseason to get in shape and figure out what’s wrong. He’s worth rolling the dice on.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

2 comments have been left for this article.

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