The Return of Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano is back. After a month-long banishment to the bullpen, Liriano has returned to the rotation looking like a completely different pitcher. In his six starts prior to his demotion, Liriano was broken. The lefty allowed 37 hits in just 26.2 innings, and racked up a 9.45 ERA. While his stint in the bullpen only lasted five outings, it seemed to be exactly what he needed. Since rejoining the Minnesota Twins’ rotation, Liriano has allowed just 16 hits in 30.1 innings, and has posted a 2.67 ERA. Even though there are some reasons to doubt Liriano’s recent performance, there are also some signs that his success could be due to an altered approach.

There’s good reason to be skeptical about Liriano’s turnaround. He’s only made five starts since he returned from the bullpen, and those starts haven’t been against strong offensive opponents. Over that period, he’s only faced one team — the Milwaukee Brewers — with an above-average wRC+. While Liriano gave up 3 runs over 6 innings in that start, he actually carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. But after walking two batters to open the sixth, Ryan Braun hit a three-run homer. That was the only hit Liriano allowed in six innings. It might be easy to look at Liriano’s performance and write it off as a hot streak, but that’s not necessarily the case.

As the season has progressed, Liriano has been throwing fewer four-seam fastballs.

Pitch Frequency April May June
Fastball 28% 31% 16%  
Sinker 25% 29% 32%
Slider 25% 32% 37%
Changeup 21% 8% 15%

Liriano’s numbers in April cover his first four starts, when he was terrible. May is a bit of a mixed bag, as Liriano made two starts, was sent to the bullpen and then returned to the rotation for one start. And the June section covers Liriano’s last four starts.

Liriano had been gradually throwing more sinkers and sliders as the season progressed, and it’s come at the expense of his four-seam fastball in June. After relying heavily on the four-seamer through the first two months of the year, the pitch has accounted for just 16% of his repertoire this month.

It seems to be paying off. Liriano’s fastball has never been a great pitch. Since 2008, the pitch carries a -34.8 pitch value according to the PITCHf/x data. Liriano’s sinker hasn’t fared much better, with a -9.7 pitch value since 2009 — but it’s still been more effective than his four-seamer. Since Liriano can’t completely scrap his fastball, he’s at least limiting the damage done against him by throwing the sinker more often.

The reliance on the slider has really been the key for Liriano. While it’s worrisome that Liriano is throwing it 37% of the time in June, it’s also easily his best pitch. Throughout his entire career the slider has always received a positive pitch type value. This season is no different, as Liriano’s slider currently has a 3.1 pitch value.

Throwing his best pitch more often is obviously going to help, but Liriano has also been getting better results with his slider as the season has moved forward.

Slider Whiffs GB LD FB
April 14.81% 3.70% 3.70% 4.94%
May 25.78% 7.03% 0.78% 4.69%
June 27.21% 10.29% 1.47% 2.94%

In each month, Liriano has managed to induce more swings and misses with the slider. Getting batters to swing and miss 27.21% of the time is incredibly impressive. His four-seamer — for example — has only induced a whiff 3.45% of the time this month. Liriano has also been able to get more ground balls with his slider. That’s a recipe for success.

In the past, Liriano has struggled when the Twins have asked him to alter his repertoire. But with the trade deadline looming, and Liriano slated to be a free-agent, the Twins are done tinkering. While Liriano’s approach is risky — considering the frequency at which he throws his slider — it’s been the driving force behind his success his entire career. It’s also been the biggest factor behind his most recent resurgence.

*The stats used in the charts were taken from BrooksBaseball.net.



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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


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Killer
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Killer
4 years 6 days ago

What sort of return could the Twins expect for Liriano? Anything more than a single A pitching prospect with a bit of upside?

Will
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Will
4 years 6 days ago

Glad we could continue the annual “Liriano is back” article for the 5th straight year!

Hunter fan
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Hunter fan
4 years 6 days ago

Reminds me a bit of Carl Hubbel. When asked to scrap the screwball because of injury risk, he stunk. Allowed to throw the screwball until his arm fell off? Great pitcher.

Just let Liriano throw the slider until his arm falls off. Whether its for two months, two years, or ten years….he’s not a major league caliber pitcher otherwise.

mcbrown
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mcbrown
4 years 6 days ago

I noted the lack of any advanced pitching metrics and was fully prepared to chalk up his recent success to batted ball luck, but the data do not support that conclusion. His FIP and xFIP (by one calculator, at least) over his last 5 starts are 2.3 and 2.9 respectively. Pretty impressive, SSS and all.

Brandon Warne
Member
Member
4 years 6 days ago

Twins should be content to let him chuck sliders over and over, and then flip him at the deadline. In fact, wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what is happening.

juan pierres mustache
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juan pierres mustache
4 years 6 days ago

liriano will get hurt before they can trade him just out of spite

spoof bonser
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spoof bonser
4 years 6 days ago

I think the Twinds should trade him for Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper
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Bryce Harper
4 years 6 days ago

That’s a clown trade bro.

radicalhenri
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radicalhenri
4 years 6 days ago

i bet you set yourself up on that one, didn’t you?

joe
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joe
4 years 6 days ago

Having watched the Twins for years, I don’t recall Liriano ever having a pitch referred to as a sinker, my guess is his fastball is just having more movement lately giving perception of another pitch. Or I could wrong be wrong.

ANYWAY, the real difference lately has been that his control of the fastball/sinker has allowed him to be ahead in the count and thus be able to go to the slider more often as his strikeout or put away pitch. I don’t think his general approach has changed where he’s throwing more sliders any old time he wants.

With Liriano, and really nearly all pitchers, his key is command of the fastball. He’s actually spotting the fastball around the zone now instead of constant 1-0, 2-1 meatballs. Now we’ll just see how much longer that lasts.

monkey business
Member
monkey business
4 years 3 days ago

sinker is what MLB started calling 2-seam fastballs this year.

payroll
Member
payroll
4 years 6 days ago

Guy hears his name on the trade block and starts striking everyone out all the sudden.

phoenix2042
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phoenix2042
4 years 6 days ago

Those LD,FB, GB percentages are off right? He only gets fly ball 3% of the time? Line drives 1% and ground balls 10%? Correct me if I’m wrong, but that and his 27% whiff rate do not add up to 100%. Am I just missing something when reading this chart?

Ivan Grushenko
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Ivan Grushenko
4 years 6 days ago

I doesn’t seem to include called balls and strikes or foul balls, or I guess HBP

Polka
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4 years 6 days ago

Correct, the missing percentages are balls that haven’t landed yet, or are on some 6 year olds mantle in his room, saying Ryan Braun- 576 feet 5/12/2012

toby
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toby
4 years 6 days ago

I wrote a thing @ Twinkietown (http://www.twinkietown.com/2012/6/22/3110845/bad-teams-or-good-liriano) along these lines with texasleaguers pitch f/x graphs and stuff. His pitches are as hard as they’ve been post-surgery over the past 4 starts and everything that has armside run (both fastballs/change) has much more effective sink than it had in April/May. Instead of being a sitting duck meatball at just shy of 8 inches of v-move (hitters kill fastballs like that), his two-seamer has a touch of sink to it. His slider has more slider and is 2 MPH harder (86!) than it was. His average location is much better with everything: lower, less center cut.

There are ZERO signs of smoke and mirrors and every sign that his stuff is finally as good as it was in 2010. Now it’s just (the big) question of whether he can keep doing it.

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