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Francisco Liriano’s Shaky Start

By the time he completed his third start in 2010, Francisco Liriano was already getting national headlines. He had thrown 21 innings, striking out 17, and allowing just three runs. After a disappointing return to the mound in 2009, it appeared that the Liriano we had seen in 2007, or at least some facsimile thereof, was on his way back. This year Liriano is making national headlines, and again he has people comparing him to a previous incarnation. Only this time it has been negative headlines, and the connection has been to his 2009 self. Plenty has gone wrong in the early going for the 2010 FIP and xFIP leader, and no, it probably doesn’t have much to do with pitching to contact.

The most noticeable change has been his dip in velocity. Last year he averaged 93.5 mph on his two-seam fastball, which he uses far more frequently than his four-seamer. This year it’s down to 91.6. We’re still in April, and we know that April velocities tend to run a bit lower. But last April Liriano was averaging 93.3 mph. The velocity becomes a bigger concern when we compare it to 2009, when it averaged 90 mph. While velocity probably plays into Liriano’s struggles, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Plenty more is going on here.

Take the following with a grain of salt, because comparing year-to-year PitchFX movement numbers can get a bit dicey, but the early numbers suggest that he’s not getting as much arm-side run, nor is the ball dipping as far as it did last year. That is, he got 9.3 inches of horizontal movement and 5.4 inches of vertical break last year, against 8.5 inches of horizontal and 6.0 inches of vertical this year. If his two-seamer, on which he generates all those ground balls, isn’t moving with the same degree of break this year, it would go a long way in explaining his poor start.

The slider, Liriano’s main strikeout weapon, also plays a factor here. Thankfully for him, that pitch appears to have everything working for it. Last April it averaged 84.1 mph, while it’s at 84.8 so far this season. It is also generating a good deal of swings and misses, 21 percent, compared to 25 percent last April. Again, I wouldn’t get too caught up; if it is indeed the only pitch he has working, it’s not a wonder that batters are swinging and missing slightly less often. The biggest change is quite unsurprising: he’s leaning on it more. That is, he’s thrown it 30.6 percent of the time this year, which is more often than any other pitch he throws. last year he only threw it slightly less often in April, but he also used his two-seamer far more frequently.

Putting this together, it seems that Liriano’s two-seamer just isn’t there, and that he’s trying to mix in the four-seamer and slider more often. Yet, as with the two-seamer, the four-seamer has lost some velocity. That leaves him with just two pitches, the slider and the changeup, that are working in any way. While any pitcher would love to have a slider with a 21 percent whiff rate and a changeup with a 23.2% whiff rate, it’s tough to sustain those numbers when your fastball isn’t working, which appears to be the case with Liriano.

Hitters have seemingly caught on to Liriano’s diminished stuff. They’re swinging less overall, but they’re actually swinging more often on pitches in the zone, while almost completely laying off pitches out of the zone. Liriano has generated swings on just 18.4% of pitches out of the zone, which is well below the league average of 27.9%. Last year he was well above the league average on O-Swing%. The hitters are still swinging and missing — his SwStr% hasn’t dipped that precipitously — but the data suggests that they’re just not chasing those bad pitches, which leads to more walks, obviously, and Liriano has issued nine free passes so far- more than double the rate at which he walked batters last year.

While it might be en vogue to point at Ron Gardenhire and staff for their pitch-to-contact preaching, that doesn’t appear to be what’s hurting Liriano right now. In fact, the one pitch he uses to induce contact, the two-seamer, is the pitch that isn’t working for him. He’s lost velocity on it, and the early data suggests that it isn’t moving with the same run and depth he showed last year. Hitters have seemingly caught on, laying off far more pitches out of the zone, while taking hacks at stuff he leaves in the zone. The result: fewer strikeouts, more walks, and more chances to hit the ball hard. As is the case with most baseball fans who enjoy young, exciting pitchers, I want to see Liriano recover his old form. But when the problem involves both speed and movement on a sinking fastball, I’m not quite confident it will happen.