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Can Liriano Stay Down in the Zone Again?

Francisco Liriano turned some heads with his May 30th start against Oakland, in which he tossed six shutout innings with nine strikeouts. It was Oakland, though, and that leaves an obvious question heading into Tuesday night’s start against Kansas City: was it the lineup, or did Liriano actually turn a corner?

It wasn’t just the strikeouts which stood out for Liriano last time out. He only allowed three hits and, most encouragingly, just two walks. Even with that performance, his BB/9 on the season sits at a sky-high 6.30. Obviously, then, much of Liriano’s success — both Tuesday night and going forward — will depend on his control. A look at his pitches from his May 30th performance suggests, in particular, it will depend on his ability to keep the ball down.

Take a look at Liriano’s PITCHf/x location data this season, with his last start highlighted:

The one place out of the strikezone where Liriano consistently missed was down, which is exactly what pitching coaches drill into players from little league on. He rarely missed in or out. He only threw six pitches over three feet above home plate the whole game.

This consistency has been absent from essentially every other Liriano start this year. Notice, in the graphic, the gray from his other starts is sprayed everywhere with reckless abandon. For the most part, Liriano’s pitches out of the strike zone against Oakland were calculated — pitches just off the outside corner against lefties; low and on the outer third against righties. Not up and catching too much of the plate; not sailing over the strike zone. For at least one start, Francisco Liriano was a Pitcher With Control.

The last time we saw Liriano with control, it was 2010, and he was excellent. Liriano was one of the forces leading the Twins into the playoffs, posting an 89 ERA- and fantastic 64 FIP- in 191.2 innings. Unfortunately, it takes about 300 batters faced for walk rates to stabilize, so if Liriano does what he did last week about 15 more times, then we can start to be statistically confident in his ability to throw the ball where he wants it.

Francisco Liriano has proven throughout his career that control can be fickle. If he maintains his control from last week tonight against Kansas City and beyond, he’ll be a productive pitcher again for the Twins, but we’ll need to see a lot more of this from him before we can even begin to have confidence in his ability to maintain that success.