March 5, 2014

Miguel Sano, Tommy John surgery, and the problem with dreaming

miguel sano

Dang.

Maybe there just aren't that many players who have problem-free careers without bumps and detours and bad news. Maybe there just aren't that many players who avoid injuries and live up to their full potential to the point that when they're all finished and headed to Cooperstown fans who've watched them for two decades can say: "Well, that was exactly what we all were hoping for."

But after watching Joe Mauer, Francisco Liriano, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel all get derailed by injuries recently--and after watching Kirby Puckett's career get cut short during my childhood--I'd sure like to see it happen soon. Sadly it won't be with Miguel Sano, as the best power-hitting prospect in baseball--and one of the truly elite prospects in Twins history--will now be forced to come back from a major injury before even reaching the majors.

Tommy John elbow surgery is less awful for hitters than pitchers, but in Sano's case whatever chance he had of sticking at third base long term relied heavily on his arm strength and that's now going to need some good rehab and good fortune to return intact. Beyond that his range, footwork, instincts, and athleticism--all things that caused people to doubt his ability to stay at the position--will be put on hold right in the middle of the prime developmental time at age 21.

It's a damn shame, not only because Sano seems like a decent person who deserves better and not only because it hurts the Twins' chances of reestablishing themselves as consistent contenders, but also because it robs Twins fans--and baseball fans in general--of their chance to see what Sano was fully capable of. Hopefully he'll recover well from the early injury and go on to have a great career. Mauer did that following rookie knee surgery, after all.

But even if that happens there will always be the lingering feeling that we'll never quite know what Sano could have been capable of without any bumps in the road. Without the time off and the surgery and the lost development and the year spent doing something other than fielding ground balls and smacking fastballs. And if healthy Sano almost surely would have seen action for the Twins this season, perhaps as soon as May or June.

Instead now the best-case scenario likely involves seeing some late-season action in the minors as a designated hitter only and then continuing to hit while avoiding throwing in the Arizona Fall League or winter ball. And then, if everything goes well there, it's possible that Sano could show up to Twins camp next spring training with essentially the same status he showed up to Twins camp this spring training: Ready to claim a full-time gig in the majors.

Whether that'll be at third base is somewhat irrelevant since the odds were stacked against him sticking there anyway and he was unlikely to ever be a huge asset defensively. Sano's value is going to come from his bat. That was true the moment the Twins signed him out of the Dominican Republic for $3.15 million as a 16-year-old and it'll be true when he's ready to put on a uniform again late this season or early next.

Instead of being a big bat with a mediocre glove at third base he may have to settle for simply being a big bat--at first base or designated hitter or maybe an outfield corner--but the goal is still the same: Get him in the middle of the Twins' lineup, slamming homers, drawing walks, and driving in Mauer and Byron Buxton. And if Sano can still hack it at third base after the surgery--for one year or his whole career--then that's just a bonus.

If there's one positive to be taken from Sano's injury it's his absence from the 40-man roster. Mauer, Liriano, and Kubel were already in the majors at the time of their major early career injuries and because of that they burned through MLB service time while on the disabled list recovering. That meant essentially wasting team-controlled seasons, pushing them closer to big paydays and free agency without the Twins actually getting value.

However, because Sano hasn't been added to the 40-man roster yet and hasn't debuted in the majors yet he'll be doing his DL stint in the minors and his service time clock won't start ticking. If he makes a full comeback and turns into a middle-of-the-order monster, the Twins will have him under their control for six full seasons instead of five seasons and a year wasted on the disabled list.

It's rare for one team to have two truly elite prospects like Buxton and Sano in their farm system at the same time and last year when I looked into the history of teammates being top-five Baseball America prospects I was surprised to see that the duos usually failed to produce a pair of stars. In fact, based on my admittedly subjective definition of "stars" it has happened exactly once in 25 years.

Two good players? Definitely. One star and one good player? Sure. But two no-doubt-about-it stars? Once since 1990. Obviously the Twins are hoping that Buxton and Sano can break that trend and it's absolutely still possible, but Sano's injury is an example of why dreaming about prospects can be so damn frustrating and why ... well, shit happens. And maybe--just maybe--Buxton can still have that elusive problem-free career.

For a lot more about Sano needing Tommy John surgery and what it means for his future, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 18, 2012

Twins Notes: Baker, Liriano, Perkins, Sano, Willingham, and Casilla

• As expected Scott Baker underwent surgery yesterday to repair the flexor pronator tendon in his elbow, but while he was under the knife Dr. David Altchek discovered ulnar collateral ligament damage and performed Tommy John surgery as well. Apparently the torn UCL didn't show up on the initial MRI exam or last week's follow-up version, so instead of a six-month recovery timetable Baker will likely be out for 12 months.

So in the span of two weeks Baker went from having an MRI exam that the Twins described as "good news" to needing "cleanup" surgery to undergoing Tommy John surgery. I'm of the opinion that there was never any chance of the Twins exercising his $9.25 million option for 2013, but now that isn't even a consideration. And at this point any injured Twins player who doesn't seek a second opinion from someone outside the organization is an idiot.

Francisco Liriano turned in his third straight clunker last night, failing to make it out of the third inning. Through three starts he has an 11.91 ERA and .407 opponents' batting average while throwing 138 strikes and 103 balls. It's become increasingly popular to say that Liriano's struggles are mental and I'm sure there's plenty of truth to that narrative, but it's also worth noting that his raw stuff is simply nowhere near as good as it was in 2010, let alone in 2006.

As a rookie Liriano's average fastball was 94.7 miles per hour and in 2010 it was 93.7 mph, but since the start of last season it's 91.6 mph. It certainly isn't shocking that a one-time power pitcher would lose confidence as his velocity vanishes and his fastball becomes far more hittable. Perhaps it's a chicken-or-egg scenario and there's no doubt that he's failed to make adjustments, but to suggest that his collapse is entirely mental seems way too simplistic.

Glen Perkins hopefully won't follow Baker's progression from optimistic diagnosis to career-altering surgery, but he underwent an MRI exam on his forearm after coughing up the lead Sunday. No structural damage was found and he's avoided the disabled list ... so far. Dating back to his final 20 appearances of last season Perkins has a 5.56 ERA in his last 23 innings, although that includes 24 strikeouts and his velocity hasn't dipped.

Miguel Sano is off to a huge start at low Single-A, homering yesterday for the fifth time in 12 games. Despite being the sixth-youngest player in the entire Midwest League and not turning 19 years old until next month Sano is hitting .256/.408/.692 and has already drawn nine walks after a total of just 23 walks in 66 games last season. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus recently got a first-hand look at Sano and came away very impressed.

Baseball Prospectus subscribers can read the full scouting report, but the short version is that Goldstein was surprised by the vastly improved patience Sano showed at the plate and was awed by the exceptional power as "his bat goes through the zone violently with plenty of explosion from his mid-section and hips." Goldstein even described Sano's defense at third base as better than expected, although that meant "merely bad" instead of "laughably awful."

Josh Willingham, like Sano, also hit his fifth homer yesterday, taking over the AL lead and joining Kirby Puckett in 1987, Kent Hrbek in 1982, and Bobby Darwin in 1972 as the only Twins hitters with five homers through the first 11 games of a season. So far at least the Willingham signing looks every bit as good as it did at the time, although as a left fielder he makes a good designated hitter.

Alexi Casilla is off to another slow start, which is an annual tradition at this point, and while looking over his career numbers with the Twins this comparison to a similarly disappointing middle infielder popped into my head:

                         G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     SB
Casilla with Twins     418     .251     .309     .336     .645     51
Player X with Twins    565     .262     .307     .383     .690     78

Longtime readers of AG.com may recognize "Player X" as Luis Rivas, who was without question the player who received the most criticism during the first four years of this blog's existence. Rivas was released by the Twins at age 25 and was out of the majors for good at age 28, which is how old Casilla will be in two months. It's time to stop treating him like some sort of prospect with impressive upside.

Trevor Plouffe has now committed 13 errors in 465 innings as a big-league shortstop, which is the equivalent of around 40 errors per full season and a startling number for someone who was a shortstop for 680 games in the minors. That includes 242 games as a Triple-A shortstop, during which time Plouffe made 47 errors. In other words, at this point Plouffe is a shortstop like Michael Cuddyer was a second baseman. He needs to start mashing left-handers.

• Last season Twins pitchers ranked dead last among MLB teams in strikeouts by a wide margin and they're back in 30th place again this season with just 54 strikeouts through 11 games. By comparison, Nationals pitchers lead baseball with 117 strikeouts in 12 games. And not surprisingly the combination of the fewest strikeouts in baseball and a sub par defense has added up to MLB's fourth-worst ERA.

• In addition to his hitting .293/.383/.415 through 11 games another positive sign for Joe Mauer is that he stole a base Monday night after a grand total of one steal in 219 games during the past two seasons. On the other hand nearly 60 percent of his balls in play have been on the ground, which is a disturbingly high total even considering he's always been a ground-ball hitter.

• Mauer isn't alone in his worm-killing, as Twins hitters collectively lead baseball with a ground-ball rate of 55.1 percent. No other team is above 51.6 percent and only two other teams are above 50 percent. And because it's really hard to hit a ground ball over the fence everyone not named Willingham has combined for four homers in 358 plate appearances.

Matthew Bashore, the 2009 first-round pick who was released by the Twins last month after injuries derailed his career, has signed with the Yankees.

"Gleeman and The Geek" made its radio debut this week with 70 minutes of non-stop Twins talk, so give it a listen if you haven't already. We'll be live on KFAN again Sunday at 4:00.

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September 5, 2011

Twins Notes: Bad news, good news, call-ups, vetoes, and symptoms

• Unfortunately in a season ruined by injuries not even the Twins' minor leaguers are safe, as Kyle Gibson will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. On the Twins' advice Gibson tried to avoid surgery with rest and rehab, but the odds were always in favor of his eventually going under the knife. In the past telling pitchers to put off surgery hasn't worked well for the Twins, but in this case the delay likely won't matter.

Because the typical recovery timetable for Tommy John surgery is 12-18 months Gibson would have missed most and perhaps all of 2012 whether he had the operation now or a month ago when the partially torn ligament was identified. All things being equal sooner is better, but there are some examples of pitchers with similar injuries avoiding Tommy John surgery and the chance of that, however slim, was probably worth the month-long delay for a 23-year-old.

Stephen Strasburg is back in the majors and throwing mid-90s fastballs again almost exactly 12 months after his Tommy John surgery, so it's possible that Gibson could see game action by late next year. Either way, his timetable for joining the Twins' rotation has now been pushed back until at least mid-2013 and the 2009 first-round pick has gone from the organization's top prospect to a major question mark. What a shame.

Alex Wimmers walked the first six hitters he faced this year, was immediately removed from the rotation at high Single-A, and spent three months trying to avoid going further down the scary Steve Blass/Rick Ankiel path. He rejoined Fort Myers as a reliever and then moved back into the rotation last month, pitching very well while avoiding any serious control issues. And on Saturday night he threw a seven-inning no-hitter in his final outing of the season.

Perhaps more importantly than not allowing any hits Wimmers issued just two walks and faced the minimum 21 batters in a 1-0 victory, with Aaron Hicks knocking in the lone run. Since his disastrous season debut and lengthy stay in extended spring training Wimmers has thrown 41 innings with a 3.32 ERA and 39-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio while limiting opponents to a .189 batting average. He's not out of the woods yet, but the 2010 first-round pick is back on track.

• Rosters expanded from 25 to 40 players on September 1 and the Twins called up Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Brian Dinkelman as their first batch of reinforcements. Hoey was acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy deal and flopped earlier this season, allowing 18 runs in 15 innings. He still has high-90s velocity, but Hoey is 28 years old and didn't even fare particularly well at Triple-A with a 3.83 ERA and 38-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42 innings.

Waldrop was similarly underwhelming in Rochester's bullpen, striking out just 44 batters in 79 innings while opponents to hit .276 with seven homers. He was far better in 2010, tossing 88 innings with a 2.57 ERA and 25 percent more strikeouts, but the Twins left him off the 40-man roster during the offseason and Waldrop went unpicked in the Rule 5 draft. Finally adding him now is odd timing, but Waldrop gets enough ground balls to possibly be a useful reliever.

When the Twins called up Dinkelman in June it was surprising, but two weeks later they put him through waivers unclaimed and sent the 27-year-old career minor leaguer back to Triple-A, removing him from the 40-man roster in the process. All of which makes it even more surprising that they've now re-added Dinkelman to the 40-man roster and called him up again. He must be one hell of a guy, because he hit .243/.316/.324 in 127 games at Triple-A.

UPDATE: Fittingly the Twins spelled Dinkelman's name wrong on the official lineup card today.

Liam Hendriks is also slated to come up from Triple-A tomorrow and make his debut against the White Sox. Hendriks ranked No. 8 on my preseason list of Twins prospects and has upped his stock since then by throwing 139 innings with a 3.36 ERA and 111-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A. He projects as a mid-rotation starter, but with Gibson out and Wimmers a worry the 22-year-old Australian is arguably the Twins' top pitching prospect.

Jim Thome's departure opened one spot on the 40-man roster and the Twins created another opening by transferring Nick Blackburn to the 60-day disabled list, ruling him out for the rest of the year because of a forearm injury. They'll need to clear one more space for Hendriks and Ron Gardenhire indicated that shifting Francisco Liriano to the 60-day DL could be the move despite his wanting to "throw at least a couple innings" before the end of the season.

• Leading up to the August 31 waiver trade deadline Joe Nathan told reporters that he "would consider" waiving his no-trade clause for a Thome-like deal to a contender, but when it came time to actually make a decision he vetoed any potential deals. In order to move Nathan the Twins would have had to eat his remaining $2 million salary for this season plus a $2 million buyout for 2012, and even then the best they might have hoped for was a marginal prospect.

Still, considering the Twins paid him $11.25 million not to pitch in 2010 and $11.25 million for a 5.02 ERA this year giving them a shot to swing a deal would have been nice. Nathan told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that next year's $12.5 million option played a part in the decision, but there's virtually zero chance of the Twins bringing him back at that price and even after being traded he could have returned next season a la Rick Aguilera in 1996.

Justin Morneau going on the disabled list with a wrist problem and then having neck surgery took the focus off last year's concussion, but now he's sidelined again with further symptoms stemming from the initial injury 14 months ago. His current symptoms were deemed "mild," but it's tough to think of anything concussion-related as "mild" given Morneau's ongoing struggles and Denard Span's similarly troubling attempts to come back from his own concussion.

Even after missing two months Span mistakenly came back before he was ready and Morneau still has headaches, dizziness, and fogginess 14 months later, making them both big question marks heading into 2012. Morneau has played just 150 of the past 327 games dating back to late 2009, undergoing back and neck surgeries in addition to the concussion, and was nothing like his usual self in 69 games this season. Scary times for two of the Twins' building blocks.

• Perception versus reality: Joe Mauer has driven in 16.1 percent of all runners on base for his plate appearances this season. Michael Cuddyer has driven in 13.8 percent. Mauer also had a higher RBI percentage than Cuddyer in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

Jim Mandelaro, who covers the Triple-A team for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, notes that they've lost 90 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1903 and 1904.

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August 10, 2011

Twins Notes: Elbows, elbows, and more elbows

Scott Baker has been fantastic despite ongoing elbow problems, throwing 132 innings with a 3.21 ERA and 120-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but it sounds like the pain may have gotten to where he can't pitch through it. Baker, who underwent elbow surgery in October and spent half of July on the disabled list with a strained flexor muscle, showed decreased velocity while struggling in his last two outings and was placed back on the DL with the same injury, saying:

I have no problem pitching with some discomfort as long as it's something that's not going to get worse. I'm OK being a little sore, but if you're not effective because of it, then that's a different story. So we've got some things to talk through. It's not as bad as it initially was. It's just really kind of lingered for a while, and it takes a lot of work to get loose. I guess there's never an ideal time for this. It's never easy, but you don't want to be that guy that has to go on the DL, if that's the decision they make.

It's remarkable that he's pitched as well as he has for as long as he has, but with the Twins all but out of the playoff picture and Baker not looking like his usual self lately shutting him down is absolutely the right move. Among all Twins pitchers to make at least 20 starts in the past 20 years Baker's current ERA ranks fifth-lowest behind Johan Santana in 2004, Santana in 2005, Santana in 2006, and Joe Mays in 2001.

• In a surprise move, the Twins decided to replace Baker on the roster and in the rotation with Kevin Slowey, who's been buried in the doghouse and stuck at Triple-A for months. Just days ago reports had Anthony Swarzak getting the nod over Slowey if a rotation replacement was needed, but apparently the Twins came around to the notion that they've totally botched the Slowey situation or agree with me that Swarzak isn't likely to fare well as a full-time starter.

I didn't expect Slowey to ever pitch for the Twins again and thought he'd be traded by July 31, but I'm glad to see them giving him another shot. Slowey was one of their five best starters in March when Ron Gardenhire picked Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing over him for rotation spots and he's one of their five best starters now. I still expect Slowey to be dealt before next season and it wouldn't shock me if he's moved yet this month, but at this point who knows.

• A healthy Kyle Gibson may have been in line to replace Baker down the stretch, but instead the Twins' top prospect has serious elbow problems of his own. Gibson was shut down after a six-week stretch at Triple-A in which he went 0-5 with a 6.47 ERA and the 23-year-old former first-round pick was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. That's the injury repaired by Tommy John surgery, but for now he'll try to avoid going under the knife.

In the past choosing rest and rehab over Tommy John surgery hasn't worked out very well for Twins pitchers, but because having the operation now would likely knock Gibson out for all of 2012 anyway there's a small window in which waiting won't significantly alter his timetable. In other words, he'll be aiming to return in March of 2013 whether the surgery is now or in two months, and in the meantime maybe Gibson will get lucky and avoid the knife altogether.

Anthony Slama will be rehabbing alongside Gibson in Fort Myers after being diagnosed with a strained flexor muscle, but it sounds as though the 27-year-old reliever is far less likely to need surgery. Of course, there's little to suggest that a healthy Slama would have been in the Twins' plans anyway and his odds of securing a long-term spot in the bullpen are pretty slim at this point despite a 2.59 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 118 innings at Triple-A.

• Over the weekend Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the Twins offered Michael Cuddyer a two-year, $16 million extension that he predictably turned down and now Christensen says they "also spoke to" fellow impending free agent Jason Kubel. No word yet on if they made an actual offer to Kubel also, but according to Christensen he shares Cuddyer's desire to "hold off on negotiating until after the season."

• On the other hand, Joe Nathan told Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press he hasn't heard "one way or another" from the Twins about their plans for him in 2012. He's technically under contract for next year, but the Twins will surely choose a $2 million buyout rather than exercise their $12.5 million option on the 36-year-old reliever. Nathan has pitched well enough of late to think he can be an effective closer in 2012, but he'll have to accept a pay cut to stay.

Justin Morneau had another big game at Triple-A last night, going 3-for-5 with two doubles, and is now 8-for-14 with four doubles in his last three games in Rochester. Not surprisingly the Twins seem just about ready to activate him from the DL, with Gardenhire saying that Morneau could potentially return as soon as Monday. That would be almost exactly six weeks after neck surgery that was expected to sideline him for at least six weeks.

Jim Souhan, in his most recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column:

Mauer's contract kept the Twins from bolstering their bullpen this winter and it might keep them from re-signing Michael Cuddyer, who has vastly outperformed Mauer over the past two years.

Wins Above Replacement since the beginning of last season: Mauer 6.5, Cuddyer 3.8. (Sigh.)

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June 14, 2010

F-Bomb 2.0: How close is Francisco Liriano to 2006?

Francisco Liriano has reemerged as an elite pitcher this year and his latest masterpiece came Friday night against the Braves, with 11 strikeouts and zero walks in eight innings of one-run ball. His gem versus Atlanta marked the second straight start in which Liriano has allowed just one run while racking up double-digit strikeouts, and overall this season he's 6-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 87-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80.2 innings spread over 12 starts.

Now four years removed from Tommy John surgery Liriano has clearly re-established himself as an ace, but because he was the ace prior to going under the knife the temptation will always be there to compare what he's doing now to the 2006 version that eviscerated the league as a 22-year-old rookie. Thanks to abundance of information available at Fan Graphs, we can get a pretty good idea of how Liriano in 2010 stacks up to Liriano in 2006.

Let's start from the top, with his fastball:

FASTBALL          2006     2010
Velocity          94.7     93.5
Percentage        43.6     50.7
Runs per 100     +0.13    +0.50

Liriano in 2006 threw his fastball an average of 94.7 miles per hour, but his velocity has dipped to 93.5 miles per hour this season. While that still ranks seventh in the league, a decline of 1.2 miles per hour is a significant drop in velocity. However, despite Liriano's fastball being slower he's thrown it 16.2 percent more often and the pitch has also been more effective, rating 0.50 runs above average per 100 offerings compared to 0.13 runs above average per 100 in 2006.

In other words, Liriano's fastball has gotten worse but he's gotten better at throwing it, which is natural for a pitcher as he gains more experience and also a credit to the work he's done on the long road back from surgery. Obviously it would be great if Liriano threw 95 mph again, but having better command of the pitch at 93.5 mph can actually be even better. Now let's take a similar look at his slider:

SLIDER            2006     2010
Velocity          87.7     85.0
Percentage        37.6     32.6
Runs per 100     +3.47    +2.71

Surgery cost Liriano even more velocity on his slider than his fastball, with the pitch going from an average of 87.7 mph in 2006 to 85.0 mph this year. Not only did his 87.7 mph slider lead the league in 2006, no one else even cracked 87.0. This year his slider velocity is 13th in the league and unlike with the fastball he hasn't been able to compensate by throwing it better. He's relied on the slider 13.2 percent less and the pitch has been 21.9 percent less effective.

Of course, less effective is a relative term. His slider has gone from +3.47 runs per 100 pitches in 2006 to +2.71 runs per 100 pitches this year, which is a big drop. Yet even at 21.9 percent less effective than it was before surgery Liriano's slider has been the second-best in the AL. That shows just how devastating his slider was in 2006, but also that, as Chipper Jones put it after facing him Friday, he still throws "some disappearing" and "Randy Johnson-type" sliders.

CHANGEUP          2006     2010
Velocity          83.5     84.8
Percentage        18.7     16.7
Runs per 100     +2.82    -0.99

Liriano's changeup was underrated in 2006 as everyone focused on his mid-90s fastball and ridiculous slider, but it ranked as one of the best in the league at +2.82 runs per 100 pitches. Since coming back from surgery Liriano's changeup velocity has actually risen by 1.3 mph, but that's not a good thing and when combined with a 1.2 mph decline in fastball velocity equals a much less effective weapon. In fact, his changeup has gone from great in 2006 to bad in 2010.

In terms of individual pitches, Liriano's fastball is slower but ultimately more effective, his slider is slower and less effective but still an incredibly dominant offering, and his changeup is faster but significantly less effective. Now let's move on to Liriano's actual results with a year-to-year comparison of his ERA, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball percentage:

YEAR      ERA     xFIP     SO/9     BB/9      GB%
2006     2.16     2.35     10.7      2.4     55.3
2010     2.90     2.95      9.7      2.4     49.1

Those stats are all more or less what you'd expected based on the individual pitch changes. He's lost one strikeout per nine innings and has induced 11 percent fewer ground balls, which makes sense given the drops in velocity and slider ridiculousness. However, his walk rate has remained constant at 2.4 batters per nine innings, which can seemingly be linked to Liriano's improved fastball command canceling out the decline in raw, blow-it-past-everyone stuff.

What made Liriano so amazing in 2006 is that he combined an incredible number of strikeouts with tons of ground balls, which is the perfect recipe for a pitcher. Surgery has cost him about 10 percent of both his strikeouts and ground balls, but Liriano still ranks third in the league in strikeout rate and 12th in ground-ball rate. In terms of overall effectiveness, he's gone from a 2.16 ERA and 2.35 xFIP in 2006 to a 2.90 ERA and 2.95 xFIP this season.

Here's an even further breakdown of his results, based on strikes, swings, and contact:

YEAR     ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2006     54.8     47.8     65.4     64.5     76.0     27.5     35.3
2010     47.5     46.9     75.5     63.3     87.1     32.2     54.8

Liriano has actually thrown 13.3 percent fewer pitches in the strike zone (ZONE) this season, which perhaps could be chalked up to his no longer being able to simply overpower everyone with strikes. Opponents are swinging (SWNG) at basically the same number of pitches, hacking at 48 percent in 2006 and 47 percent this season, but they're making contact (CONT) on those swings 15.4 percent more often this year.

On pitches inside the zone opponents are swinging (Z-SW) at the same rate as 2006, but are making 15 percent more contact (Z-CN). On pitches outside the zone opponents are swinging (O-SW) 17 percent more often and also making 55 percent more contact (O-CN). I'm not smart enough to know for sure, but it seems like the slider going from ridiculous to merely excellent and the changeup going from excellent to bad could explain the swing and contact changes.

Add it all up and Liriano clearly isn't the same pitcher he was before elbow surgery. His velocity is down, his slider and changeup aren't as good, he's getting 10 percent fewer strikeouts and ground balls, and hitters are having a much easier time making contact against him on pitches in and out of the strike zone. He's also relying less on his slider and more on his fastball, likely due in part to the injury risk of the slider and in part to his improved command of the fastball.

It seems clear that the phenom who toyed with the league in 2006 is simply gone forever, but the good news is that Liriano was so spectacularly awesome then that even this post-surgery version with obvious declines in numerous areas is one of the elite pitchers in all of baseball. His combination of strikeouts and ground balls still ranks among the best in the league and his raw stuff is still capable of overpowering hitters, as the Braves saw first hand Friday.

Oh, and the other good news? F-Bomb 2.0 is still five months from his 27th birthday.

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