April 28, 2010

Strikeouts and Grounders: Francisco Liriano is Dealing Again

I've often suggested that the Francisco Liriano who was the best, most overpowering pitcher in all of baseball as a rookie in 2006 was lost for good when he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery. I still believe that to be true, but a) the version we've seen so far this year is pretty damn close, and b) if there wasn't an extraordinarily dominant 2006 version to compare him to the reaction to what Liriano is doing right now would be, more or less, "holy shit."

What made Liriano so incredibly special in 2006 is that he both led the league in strikeout rate and ranked fifth in ground-ball percentage, which is essentially the perfect combination. After returning from surgery in 2008/2009 he lost about one-fifth of his strikeouts, saw his fastball and slider velocity decline 3-4 miles per hour, and actually turned into a fly-ball pitcher, with his ground-ball rate going from 55 percent to 40 percent.

In other words, not only did his raw stuff and on-field results change for the worse with a drop in velocity and 5.12 post-surgery ERA, he was actually a different type of pitcher. Thankfully, it looks like he's back to missing bats and killing worms. After a mediocre season debut Liriano has won three straight starts and thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings while allowing just 14 hits and five walks, racking up 24 strikeouts and 32 ground-ball outs in those 23 frames.

DATE     OPP      IP     R     H     SO     BB     GB     PIT
4/15     BOS     7.0     0     4      8      2     10      96
4/21     CLE     8.0     0     6      6      2     13     102
4/26     DET     8.0     0     4     10      1      9     112

Now, even 24 strikeouts and 32 ground-ball outs in 23 innings can't compare to what he did in 2006 and Liriano's velocity also isn't quite back to his pre-surgery levels, but that just shows how insanely great he was back then. For the past three starts he's averaged 93-94 miles per hour on his fastball with a strikeout per inning and nearly twice as many grounders as fly balls, which is absolutely, without question the recipe for top-of-the-rotation dominance.

Time will obviously tell if he can keep it up, but right now the Twins have a 26-year-old ace.

  • sirsargentballs

    Yes Holy Shit.

    More swearing please. Your mom won’t care.

  • Zack

    If he keeps this up, I think the question is when do the Twins try to lock him up. Arb is going to get expensive.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    Indeed. Unfortunately, many of the Liriano’s bargain years were now eaten up by injury and his lesser post-surgery seasons. Now, just in time for arbitration, he’s dealing again.

    I guess it’s better than having another marginal year. So, it’s a good problem. Still a problem, but a good one – considering.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    Also – like those new road uniforms. Simple, clean, and nice. The gray pinstripes got old. The dark blue shirts on the road were OK – but they needed the plain pants like in the current set to make them really work.

  • PDC

    Just finished watching the game, and Liriano was absolutely thrilling. He seemed to be getting behind a lot early on, but in the late innings the Tigers hitters looked utterly pitiful. The bite was really back on his sinker and he was locating it well.

    Also, the curve ball Rauch struck out Inge with was stanky as hell.

  • Jake

    Liriano is fantastic. Both Verlander and Liriano benefited heavily from an enormous strike zone. But still, he was great. He really doesn’t even have pinpoint control. He makes pitches when he has to but for the most part he is just filthy and hitters are guessing when to swing.

    It really seems like hitters cannot differentiate the fastball and slider at all until it is too late. They seem to pick up his change up, which is a solid pitch in its own right. But the slider/fastball sometimes they miss by over a foot.

    The ball is about 3 inches across and if you can’t get the bat within a foot…that’s good.

  • Jake

    One thing I found funny was how Span got ejected for bitching about the ridiculous strike zone and then Rausch an inning later used that silly strike zone to pick up K’s in the ninth.

  • festivus

    So how is the “Liriano for Closer” campaign going?

  • ThatGuy

    Even if Liriano wins the CY this year, the Twins will be able to point to his injury history and prior poor production to keep his salary somewhat reasonable. He won’t get Lincicium money for sure, Linicium had 2 straight Cy Youngs and NO injuries in 3 years of service. Liriano can’t say that. But i love that he is dominating again.

  • LENthree

    Liriano for closer!

  • Ezdave

    He is still only 26. Seems like he has been around forever. Same age as Slama.

  • Adam S.

    Weird how Blackburn and Span get contracts this year and both are playing below expectations. Knew both were bad ideas. Why not make them play to earn their money?

  • pk

    Rausch’s stellar performance is getting lost in all of Liriano’s excellence. There was no reason to believe the Tigers with the heart of their order coming up weren’t going to come back. All the ingredients were there for it. Low and behold though Rauch shut the door. WOW..

    What financial implications went into the decision of making Rauch the closer instead of say Guerreir? It’s like receiving a big pay raise or promotion.

  • Tom W.

    I love the F-BOMB! As you mentioned several times, F-BOMB’s biggest problem last year was failing to locate his fastball, and the differential in speed between his fastball and his slider and change-up. It looks like that differential has increased – 93-94 to abou 83 and below, and with his ability to locate the fastball or at least be confident enough to throw it for strikes, I think he has a chance to be a #1 starter. The fact that he had to learn how to pitch has helped as well.

  • Jeff

    “if there wasn’t an extraordinarily dominant 2006 version to compare him to the reaction to what Liriano is doing right now would be, more or less, “holy shit.”"

    This is a great insight. AG, you rock once again.

  • Andrew

    I don’t know how accurate the radar gun at Comerica Park is but on both FSN and MLB Gameday, Liriano’s fastball was being clocked at 95 and even 96 mph, though his slider was still at 83-84 instead of the pre-surgery ~87.

    Did Liriano actually pick up a couple of MPH on his fastball between starts?

  • jimbo92107

    An even more important good sign is that Liriano’s mechanics appear to create less torque on his shoulder and elbow. He pitched 8 full innings last night, threw 115 pitches, lots of fastballs and sliders, some changeups, and at the end reported that his arm felt good.

    On the other hand, that’s what he was saying just before his TJ ligament popped…

  • http://www.emptythebench.com Mr. Thell

    Rauch. Our closer’s last name is Rauch.

    And yes, holy shit indeed. This is going to be a special year for us Twinkies fans.

  • Pete

    FYI jimbo, it’s the UCL ligament that popped…TJ is the surgery named to replace it. His delivery is still fairly erratic, but considering he just replaced the ligament that is bearing the stress of his pitching, he should be fine for awhile. It’s been nice to get this kind of production out of a pitcher who was slated as the #5 starter at the beginning of the year…

  • http://kkvb.blogspot.com Karl

    The two things that stood out about the game last night:

    Paul Emmel’s strike zone. A more ridiculous wide open gaping space than Michael Strahan’s front teeth.

    Justin Morneau’s “precautionary” removal from the game. I have my fingers crossed – hopefully they are telling the truth about the severity/chances for long term ramifications.

  • Jake

    I don’t know enough about mechanics to have an opinion of whether or not his “new” delivery puts the same stress on the elbow ligaments or whatever.

    But regardless, looking at the way he pitches injury has to be a concern. His delivery is extremely violent. It almost looks out of control. He’s just nasty.

  • Dave T

    That was a fun game to watch, although the strike zone was reedickalous. How did Verlander manage to throw 120 pitches in 5+ innings? Like Dick Bremer said, if you can throw it between the batters boxes, it will be called a strike.

  • J. Lichty

    Weird how Blackburn and Span get contracts this year and both are playing below expectations. Knew both were bad ideas. Why not make them play to earn their money?

    Wisdom of contracts aside. While Span’s BA is a little south of where he is expected to be at the end of the season, he is getting on base at a ridiculous clip, has played solid defense and has run the bases very well.

    I see nothing from Span that makes me worry.

    Blackburn has been subpar, and I fear that it is due to his elbow. While his peripherals have always been marginal, he is not the same pitcher as he was last year. I fear that we will see the same process with him as we saw with Slowey last year. Fights through it for a couple months and then gets shut down.

  • Walter Solbcheck

    Damnit, we’re not supposed to talk about this. It’s like a no-hitter fellas, don’t jinx it.

  • Ted

    I cannot remember the last time I was this angry after a game. That call in center makes me want to drive around town, find an umpire in some little league game and punch him right in the kidney. Not only does it set up a huge inning for Detroit, but it takes away a great running catch from Denard. Last night he gets boned on a horrible called third strike, and tonight he gets boned on an even worse called error.

    Of course the Twins’ play did nothing to help my mood, and in fact had already primed the pump. What in the hell was Hughes doing swinging the bat after Hardy’s leadoff double? I liked watching Hughes swap his first ML home run too, but he is the ninth hitter, and at this point in the game, with a one-run lead and a starter who is struggling, why not play for the run and hope your top of the lineup guys can get something going with one out?

    Of course I also didn’t like the decision to pitch Baker into the fifth. He struggled all night and finally gets knocked around in the fourth. I thought he should have been taken out in the fourth, but whatever. Then, with Burnett warm and ready to go, what possible reason was there to send Baker back out to the mound?

    And the bullpen decisions were mystifying. I guess I get bringing Mahay in to face Damon; I disagree with the decision and I think it is overuse of the bullpen to make that move in the sixth, but I get it. But why bring in Crain with the bases loaded? Why?

    Also, what was Delmon thinking trying to steal third?

    All of this crap — Delmon’s steal attempt, Baker’s ineffectiveness, the decision to let Hughes hit with Hardy on second, the inability to get a runner home from third with no outs — had me at a low boil, but the game was still in MN’s favor, and I was keeping it together. Then that horrible call was made to take away Delmon’s nice running catch (who has looked good in CF, I think), and I lost it. Things spiraled from there, and, yeah, like I said, I cannot remember being this angry after a game in quite some time.

  • Chris from Cambridge

    Ted–Maybe the reason you can’t remember when you were “this angry after a game” is because the Twins are 14-7. There are some great books on relaxation techniques, if this problem continues to fester.

  • Chris

    When we will see guys like Waldrop, Slama, Gibson in MLB??? Slama is dominating AAA. WOW!!!