As a 22-year-old back in 2006, Francisco Liriano eviscerated American League hitters. The left-hander, originally signed out of the Dominican Republic by the San Francisco Giants but traded to the Twins in November of 2003, posted a 4.1 win season in just 121 innings pitched. Featuring mid-90’s gas, a quality changeup, and an upper-80’s slider causing hitters to swing out of their shoes, Liriano boasted the holy trinity of pitcher skills: He missed bats (10.71 K/9), limited the free passes (2.38 BB/9), and burned worms (55.3 GB%). With a 2.35 xFIP, Liriano looked poised to rank among baseball’s pitching heavyweights for years to come.
And then everything came to a screeching halt on August 7th against the Tigers. Liriano, who had been dealing with elbow soreness and forearm inflammation, left his start after just four innings. After spending over a month on the DL, he returned to take on the A’s on September 13th. The outing lasted just two frames. In November, the Twins’ would-be ace underwent Tommy John surgery.
He was effective upon returning in 2008, if not not the absolute terror on display in ’06. He got a few starts for the Twins in April, but was sent down to Triple-A Rochester after struggling to locate. In 118 International League innings, Liriano had 8.62 K/9 and 2.36 BB/9, though he didn’t generate as many grounders (42 GB%). According to Minor League Splits, Francisco’s pitching translated to a 4.03 FIP in the majors.
The minor league numbers weren’t too far off what he actually accomplished in the big leagues — tossing 76 innings, Liriano struck out 7.93 batters per nine frames, walked 3.79 per nine, and had a 41.6 GB%. His xFIP was 4.31. Last year was more of the same. Though Liriano’s 2009 ERA (5.80) was ghastly, he posted rates of 8.03 K/9, 4.28 BB/9, a 40.2 GB%, and a 4.55 xFIP in 136.2 innings.
Entering 2010, the Twins didn’t know what to expect from Liriano. His control often wavered, and his health remained a huge question mark after he missed time late in 2009 with forearm and elbow fatigue. Before Liriano lit up the Dominican Winter League, hitting 92-94 MPH with his heater for the first time since surgery, he wasn’t even assured a spot in the starting rotation.
Now, it’s hard to imagine the Twins staying in contention without Liriano’s dominant starts. In 136 IP, the 26-year-old has 9.93 K/9 and 2.51 BB/9, and he’s scorching the Earth again with a 53 percent ground ball rate. Liriano leads all qualified starting pitchers with a 2.83 xFIP, and with 5.5 WAR, he has added more value than any other starter.
Compared to ’08 and ’09, Liriano is getting far more first pitch strikes, while also allowing less contact and inducing more swinging strikes. Hitters are chasing his stuff off the plate more often, relative to the MLB average:
Among qualified starters, Liriano ranks first in swinging strike and contact rate. He ranks “only” fifth in outside swing rate, and is 43rd in first-pitch strike percentage. Slacker.
How is Liriano doing it? According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, Francisco is using his souped-up fastball less often. When he does throw the pitch, he’s getting strikes at a better clip than in ’08 and ’09:
Those lost fastballs have been replaced by more sliders. That mid-80’s breaker has been nothing short of sinister — check out the strike and whiff rates on Liriano’s slider:
When Liriano gets two strikes, expect to see a slider. According to our pitch type splits, Liriano’s throwing his slider 66% in 0-2 counts, 61% in 1-2 counts, 69% in 2-2 counts, and 75% in 3-2 counts. Two-strike situations tend to be off-speed and breaking ball-heavy counts, but Liriano tosses his fastball less than most when he puts the hitter’s back against the wall:
Liriano’s changeup hasn’t gotten as many strikes, but the offering is still making batters whiff at an above-average rate:
At 59-47, the Twins sit one game back of the White Sox. CoolStandings.com suggests the team’s chance of making the playoffs is basically a coin flip (52%). While the M&M Boys are ailing, Minnesota can at least take solace in knowing that Liriano’s doing everything in his power to improve those odds.
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