What’s Wrong with Francisco Liriano?

After five terrible starts to open the season, it’s time to wonder what the heck is wrong with Francisco Liriano. Finally healthy in 2010, Liriano delivered the best season of his career – in which he finished first in the American League in xFIP and second in the AL in FIP (behind Cliff Lee). This season, Liriano looks less like the Minnesota Twins’ ace, and more like their 25th man. With Kevin Slowey preparing to take over in the rotation, can Liriano turn it around before he loses his spot?

At look at Liriano’s peripherals doesn’t inspire much confidence. Liriano has been absolutely terrible this season, posting an identical strikeout and walk rate of 6.85. The former would rate at a career low for Liriano, while the latter is the worst among all starting pitchers this season. All told, Liriano’s poor performance has led to a 9.13 ERA over his five starts.

While we shouldn’t expect Liriano to continue to be that bad as the season progresses, we also shouldn’t expect much improvement based on his current stats. Despite the struggles, Liriano’s .307 BABIP rates right around his career average. Liriano has also been able to maintain his solid ground ball rate from last season. Even though those numbers have remained consistent, Liriano has still managed to post a 6.05 FIP and a 5.26 xFIP to start the season.

A look at Liriano’s plate discipline charts may reveal the reasons for Liriano’s struggles. Opposing batters have been more reluctant to offer at Liriano’s pitches this season; particularly outside of the strike zone. When batters are swinging at those pitches, they are making contact with more frequency as well. On top of that, Liriano’s slider currently carries a negative pitch type value; the first time in his career that the pitch has been ineffective.

The slider has been a problem for Liriano this season. Hitters aren’t swinging at the pitch as often this season; particularly when it ends up out of the zone. When Liriano throws the slider for a ball, batters are only swinging 27.4% of the time; down from 40.4% last season. That could partially explain Liriano’s poor first strike percentage this season as well. When batters do swing at the pitch, they are making more contact than usual (52.9% this season compared to 37.4% last season). All told, Liriano’s best pitch has completely betrayed him this season. If he hopes to rebound, Liriano is going to have to “find” his slider again.

Due to those struggles, Liriano currently carries the worst swinging strike rate of his career. Liriano’s current 10.6% swinging strike rate is nearly identical to his 2008 rate; the season that ended prematurely after Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery. *As reader dan pointed out in the comments, Liriano was recovering from TJ surgery in 2008. That’s not to imply Liriano is/or will be injured, but it’s another example of his struggles this season.

Unfortunately for Liriano, he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to figure things out. With Kevin Slowey breathing down his neck, Liriano likely only has 1-2 starts before Ron Gardenhire makes a change. Based on Liriano’s current performance, that may not be the worst decision for the Twins. Liriano ultimately has the most talent of any pitcher in the Twins’ rotation, and he proved that last season, but a healthy Kevin Slowey is definitely an upgrade over this version of Liriano.




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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.


105 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Francisco Liriano?”

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  1. lester bangs says:

    The time to hesitate is through. Liriano was a worrisome case a while ago; history of physical problems, velocity dip.

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  2. tay says:

    if Liriano is rocked next outing, drop 4 Dempster,Nareveson,Holland,McCarthy,Colon,Peavy?:Colon new David Wells/Schill/Rocket?

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  3. Nate says:

    Dropped him this morning for Bud Norris.

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    • Anon says:

      WTF? How was Bud Norris available in your league?

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      • VivaAyala says:

        Both Norris and Beachy were ungrabbed in mine until I got them this morning.

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      • Phillie697 says:

        LOL, did exactly the same thing myself Viva. I’m also gonna stash Liriano on the bench, just in case. Can’t bring myself to drop him just yet.

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    • VivaAyala says:

      Oddly enough, I did exactly the same thing.

      In my other league, I’m holding on to him (for now) but keeping him benched until he’s able to turn it around.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        try having gallardo and liriano and ubaldo jimenez this year. i was looking at 3 aces before the season… now the best ERA I’m getting is above 5. at least Ubaldo is still getting strike outs, unlike the other guys…

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  4. dan says:

    2008 was when he was recovering from TJ, not about to undergo it.

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  5. Kevin Watanabe-Smith says:

    What doesn’t make sense with the slider issue is that most of the pitchFX numbers show a change in his fastball (2mph velocity drop) and nothing really with the slider. I mean, the vertical movement measures have been off a tick, but those haven’t been consistent for Liriano from season to season anyways. Is it possible that the loss of speed on his fastball is impacting how hitters approach his slider?

    More importantly, if Frankie is just seeing a drop in the velocity of one type of pitch, not across the board, is there a solution for him? It’s not like a Phil Hughes dead arm.

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    • chuckb says:

      perhaps, and I’m just throwing this out there not knowing anything about Liriano’s season to date, but maybe the loss of velocity on his fastball is affecting his confidence with it and, therefore, his approach of how/when to throw it. In other words, maybe he’s being more careful with his fastball, knowing that he doesn’t have the velocity he’s used to, and falling behind with it. Then he’s throwing his slider over the plate when he’s behind in the count or early in the count in order to get ahead.

      In other words, maybe he doesn’t trust his fastball so, instead of throwing his slider off the plate, he’s throwing it over the plate and trying to get away with it and hitters aren’t letting him.

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  6. Romyrick says:

    Isn’t it possible that Liriano is just out of shape? The twins are saying his release point is off. Perhaps he’s just not ready for the beginning of the season. He’s averaging 1.5 mph less on the FB but he’s still throwing the pitch occasionally at 95/96. Maybe he needs to build stamina and earn some touch on that slider.

    In that case is he a buy low candidate?

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  7. Tom Pickle says:

    I don’t know, but I’m sure the White Sox will help him fix it.

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  8. Hacksaw Jim Duggan says:

    We could also use a What’s Wrong With Yovani Gallardo?

    Tough guy!

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    Trade value dropping like a boulder.

    Looks like the league has made serious adjustments to their approach.

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    • Jason B says:

      Funny how things like that work…before the season there was a loud, collective groan about the trade rumors – “How could they even consider trading him?!? Don’t they want to compete?!?” (Not pointing fingers, I didn’t think trading him before the season for 85 cents on the dollar was wise either.)

      Now if they tried to peddle him they would likely get…I dunno, 30, 35 cents on the dollar? You just never know.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I would have traded him based on 4 things …

        [1] He’s due for big regression in 2011.
        [2] His injury history
        [3] His IP numbers for an “ace”.
        [4] His value would never have been higher than after 2010

        Oh, and one more, … the NYY needing pitching badly. You always want to have the NYY involved in the bidding.

        No one expected FL to be this bad, and it is early, but there are some serious signs of trouble/injury.

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  10. jason says:

    this is about the 10th whats wrong with Liriano bit in the fantasy world. Comical, I would rather see whats right with Bud Norris.

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  11. Brad says:

    I was really hoping for some pitch fx anlaysis, can someone else at fangraphs please do something like that to look into the difference in the actual pitches he’s throwing, as opposed to just explaining that his xfip supports his bad era.

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    • Mike says:

      Seriously. This article reads like a walk through of each cell in Liriano’s advanced stat row.

      Also, he’s had 4 bad starts and 1 good one so far this year.

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      • opisgod says:

        Coincidentally (or not) the best start coinciding with the only start where his velocity was similar to 2010.

        I keep saying it, Liriano is AAAA at best without 94MPH, because he can’t throw less velocity down the middle without hitters pounding it every single time.

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      • chuckb says:

        Perhaps you could do that for us, and let us know what you discover!

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  12. fredsbank says:

    god forbid fangraphs’ favored son isn’t actually the best thing since sliced bread….

    as one who never drank the liriano koolaid, i could care less what his issue is, and am delighted not to have the ‘best team in the AL’ (remember that article?) winning their division.

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    • quincy0191 says:

      Because Liriano’s never been a good pitcher, it’s just FG hype. And the Twins are really this bad; that long history of production from their team was just a fluke. Surprised this comment didn’t end with a #6org.

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      • Bryz says:

        It’s absolutely laughable that you say Liriano has “never been a good pitcher.”

        Career FIP (3.49) and xFIP (3.42) roughly .70 points lower than his career ERA (4.18)

        Career 9.19 K/9, 3.31 BB/9

        2006: 2.16 ERA, 2.55 FIP, 10.71 K/9, 2.38 BB/9

        2008: 3.91 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 7.93 K/9, 3.79 BB/9 (and this was the season after TJ surgery)

        2010: 3.62 ERA, 2.66 FIP, 9.44 K/9, 2.72 BB/9

        Granted, his odd number years have been bad, but there’s no way you can say that Liriano has never been good.

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      • JoeyO says:

        He was being sarcastic in response to Fredsbank’s extremely questionable comment. (the tone of which leads me to believe he is likely a WhiteSox fan…)

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      • batpig says:

        sarcasm FAIL for Bryz

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      • Bryz says:

        Yikes. I’ll go sad trombone myself off stage. *hangs head in shame* http://www.sadtrombone.com/

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  13. vivalajeter says:

    Could he just be tipping his pitches? If they know the slider is coming, they’ll lay off of it.

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    • Patrick says:

      This is the most rational argument made.

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      • Mario Mendoza says:

        Doesn’t explain velocity dip. I’m betting dollars to donuts this is injury related.

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      • Homer_J_Simpson says:

        Mmmmmmm…dooooooughnuts

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I thought the most rational line of thought would be the league noticed “we can’t hit his slider out of the zone” so “stop fargin chasing it”.

        We see batters try and take pitches against marmol as well, but that doesn’t work as nicely.

        Tipping pitches is possible, but that’s also part of the deal. That might be something he can correct, and it might not be.

        Generally what makes the slider so difficult to resist is the velocity in relation to the fastball … bu the time you realize it’s not a fastball, it’s too late … you’re screwed. If his velocity is down, that will affect the slider’s effectiveness as well.

        His big deal last year, just going from memory seemed to be the low and in (out of the zone) slider to RHBs. On strikeout counts, it rarely seemed to finish in the zone. So, if batters can condition themselves into thinking “starts off middle in, let it go”, and they have a good idea that FL isn;t throwing inside corner fastballs with 2 strikes … then it could be easy to layoff.

        He might not be using his fastball-slider combo in similar ways. You use both to work off each other, which means you throw both to similar locations in the zone. You want batters to see slider and think “fastball”. But if he doesn’t work both pitches to same spots, then location can give away the pitch as well. Reduced velocity on the fastball could mean less likelihood that he’s “coming inside with it”, which (according to my memory) was where his slider was very effective.

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    • JoeyO says:

      The thing is, the Slider is the pitch he has seen the biggest success drop on. The -1.81 wSL/C is quite a contrast to +1.88 he provided last year.

      That wSL/C and the wFB/C (-2.18) show both pitches are equally ineffective for him right now. The other big differences I see come in the 45.7% FirstStrike (61.7% last season, 57.1% Career) and 10.6% SwingingStrike (12.4% 2010, 12.9 Career) despite his hitting the Zone at the same rate.

      I honestly think it does have something to do with confidence. Hitters are jumping all over that first pitch (.467/.467/1.400) and he seems to be having an extremely difficult time getting back on track if that first pitch was a ball (hitters posting a .429 OBP after ball one, .491 OBP when ahead in the count and are hitting .333/.333/.833/1.167 with the count even).

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    • chuckb says:

      Possible but it also may be, as I suggested earlier, that he doesn’t trust his FB b/c of the velocity dip and is, therefore, throwing his slider over the plate instead of off the plate in an attempt to get ahead in the count or square the count when he’s falling behind.

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  14. Jim Kaat says:

    In his last start, the velo was way down (91.5 avg) and his slider had no bite ( 3.64 v-break). A lot of those sliders just hung there and got crushed. He seems to lack focus to begin with, but when things start going bad they really snowball on him, thus the several big innings against him.

    Some of his fastballs had absolutely wicked movement and were unhittable. I also agree with the thoughts he may have come to camp out of shape. I certainly wouldn’t drop him- would give him at least the next couple starts to see if the velo comes back as well as the bite to his slider.

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  15. db says:

    After Liriano’s start today, if he sucks, do I drop him for Norris, Annibal or Burnett. Picked up Beachy this morning.

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    • Jason B says:

      Norris – yes.
      Anibal – probably.
      Burnett – meh.

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    • Jason B says:

      Although the “if he sucks today” qualifier doesn’t appear to be holding in the least tonight – 6 IP, 0 H so far. Maybe he knew his spot in your rotation was in jeopardy. :)

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  16. mymrbig says:

    Looking at Pitch Fx, his fastball velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement mimic his 2008 and 2009 fastballs. Only he has worse control than 2008 and 2009. So if he can sharpen his control back to 2008 & 2009 levels, he could get back to being a pitcher with a low/mid 4 xFIP. But he needs to regain both control and velocity/movement on his fastball to get back to 2010 level.

    I’m guessing because his fastball is considerably less effective, hitters are doing a better job against his slider, even though his slider hasn’t changed as much according to PitchFx.

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  17. Drew says:

    When Logan Morrison comes off the DL, I need to dump someone (preferrably an SP).

    I’m pretty sure it’s going to be Liriano (or Dempster), pending tonight’s start(s), but let’s say F-Lir returns to his 2010 form and can stave off being cut – who should I cut?

    Here are my starters:

    Haren
    D. Hudson
    Kuroda
    Kennedy
    Floyd
    Dempster
    Baker
    Liriano
    Norris

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  18. toby says:

    Release point was first kinda-sorta alluded to by blogger Parker Hageman on his Over The Baggy blog in a post called “Answers For Liriano’s Rough Start?” He looked at video that showed Liriano bending over less/finishing higher this year than last and (possibly consequently) not keeping the ball down as much. Google his thing: it’s got some fun contrasting gifs and such, and to my eye there’s absolutely a contrast in this year’s delivery. Hopefully it’s pure mechanics (and not a nagging injury workaround) and something the Twins have the wherewithal to fix.

    This FG article, btw, was not very informative.

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  19. zak says:

    parker at overthebaggy did a good take on the release point question showing how he is finishing with his back straighter keeping the ball up.

    http://overthebaggy.blogspot.com/2011/04/answers-for-lirianos-rough-start.html

    He has never been real consistent with his mechanics, even when on, and it seems very possible to me him not doing the off season work the twins wanted him to made him come in rusty with faulty mechanics and after a few failures and the overall team failures caused him to lose his confidence, he certainly has shown hes a headcase in the past. Throw all that in with Gardy and Rick Anderson badgering him to pitch to contact all the time and changing the way he used the pitching rubber and you have a currently terrible Liriano. I hope something gives and he gets back on track soon his troubles are the last thing the twins need.

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  20. David says:

    You are right to point out that Liriano is pitching badly. However, one possibility is simply that he never learned how to pitch in freezing cold weather. His record is 1-1 in games started this year where the game time temperature was above 50 degrees. During his last outing, it was snowing and he claimed he could not feel the ball.

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  21. Bronnt says:

    Could you do me a favor and write a “What’s wrong with Martin Prado” tomorrow? Maybe he’ll finally start hitting.

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  22. Drew says:

    Yeah, and change the title of the Pedro Alvarez article. Thx!

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  23. King_James says:

    What’s wrong with Francisco Liriano is that he doesn’t against the White Sox enough.

    Can you say no-no??

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  24. Jim Lahey says:

    He just threw a no hitter…. what’s wrong with him?

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  25. King_James says:

    Chris Cwik looks stupid now LOL.

    NO-NO!!

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    • prankmunky says:

      That wasn’t exactly an impressively dominating effort. Judging by the lack off control there is still something wrong with Liriano.

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    • Jason B says:

      I like the way you’re using a sample size of one start to totally discredit an article. You stay classy, king.

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  26. Arjun says:

    First thing that I thought to do when I saw the no-hitter on ESPN was to come here haha

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  27. MonteroSmash says:

    Did he read this article?

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  28. reillocity says:

    I like how Liriano throws a 6-walk no-hitter …. when facing Edwin Jackson.

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  29. Joe says:

    Hahahaha dude throws a no hitter! Of course that happens when I decide to not put him in my lineup for the first time this year. I fully expect him to get rocked when I put him back in my lineup for his next start. Crazy, but good for him!

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    • Neufeld says:

      I benched him in a league where no hitters is a stat category! Can’t really blame me after his awful start. I might bench him next week too.

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  30. Chris Cwik says:

    Well, guess I’m going to eat crow on this one.

    Doesn’t help that he no-hit my frickin team. We probably need a “What’s Wrong with the White Sox” article after this thing.

    +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • barold says:

      Please write one. Something’s gotta do the trick to get the bats to wake back up.

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    • Sophist says:

      How about a what-might-the-rebuilding-toward-2012-of-the-White-Sox look like, given all the ridiculous unmoveable salaries and lack of much of anything in the minors and huge backslide of all the young players who looked like they would help this year (Sale, Beckham, Morel).

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    • Sox27 says:

      Chris to make things worse, how about being there to witness it live…and for it to be against the team you hate more than anything in the world?

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  31. Chris says:

    That’s great for him!! He’s been struggling mightily this year. Hopefully this will kick start not only him, but the entire team!!

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  32. Frankie Fuckin Liriano says:

    Suck It Fangraphs Look At Me Now

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  33. CUTiger81 says:

    Funny how that works. I considered dropped Liriano for Bartolo Colon or Randy Wolf earlier today. Good call not doing that…..

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    • Jason B says:

      Randy Wolf is the single player who is the most added and dropped guy I have ever seen. (I should know, I will add and drop him about three times each over the course of any given season.) We have a running joke about it in our league of dorks.

      He’ll give you a 6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K effort or two and then throw a 2 1/3 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 3 BB, 1 K stinker and another frustrated owner will dump him onto the wire. Repeat x 10 in any given year.

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      • CUTiger81 says:

        Same thing happens to me every year w/ Wolf.

        I take a numbers approach to my pitching categories, so I emphasize hitting in my draft & then carry no bench hitters during the season. My goal each week is to win W, K & QS. I normally punt saves and then take my chances with ERA & WHIP. So every year I’m in a position to pick up Wolf b/c he strikes out guys and every year he gets me one good start and then 2 stinkbombs before I drop him for someone else.

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  34. BLloyd says:

    Can’t wait for tomorrow’s article dissecting where this ranks in the pantheon of un-impressive no-hitters. Slightly above Edwin Jackson’s last year, no doubt, but this was a similar performance.

    Liriano threw only 54% strikes tonight (Jackson last year, 53%). He only threw first pitch strikes to 11 out of 30 hitters. I only watched the last three innings but describing them as effectively wild would be too kind, as he really struggled to locate both his fastball and slider.

    As I see it, there are still two potential silver linings:
    1) If confidence is really an issue for him, tonight’s outing should help significantly.
    2) He was still hitting 93-94 on the gun in the 9th inning, so perhaps there’s some room to increase the zip on his fastball as the season progresses.

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    • adam says:

      To be fair, he was only at 101 pitches through 8 (22 in the final inning?), and seemed to have massive control issues in the 9th that contributed to weaker overall numbers wrt strikes, although most of his walks did come earlier in the game, too.

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    • Matt C says:

      For what it’s worth according to The Sweet Spot blog on ESPN.com it was the lowest game score for a no hitter since Cliff “Lefty”Chamber’s no no in 1951.

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    • SC says:

      What’s funny about the 11 out of 30 first pitch strikes is the Twins had been harping since the exhibition season for him to throw first pitch strikes and get ahead of hitters so he could go deeper in games. I would expect Liriano to walk about 10 when he faces Boston in his next start, since he will think throwing strikes really doesn’t matter.

      Still seems like a total fluke, his fastball was up some but still well below last year, and his slider was no where near where it was last year as well.

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    • Jason B says:

      Did anyone hear the ESPN announcer talking about how this is exactly what they want him to do, “pitching to contact” and all that nonsense? That is SUCH a misguided philosophy. Like somehow 6 BB, 2 K, and hoping they hit it right to your defenders is better than 3 BB, 8 K, and blowing people away?

      (Not that he’s done any of that this season, but you would think they could grasp the simple concept that K’s have a .000 BA, whereas balls in play tend to have about a .300 BA, give or take.)

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  35. Jo-Jo Reyes says:

    Me next!

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  36. awayish says:

    ingenious timing strikes again

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  37. Fred says:

    He did just throw a no-hitter, but it was rather underwhelming. He only had 2Ks and had 6 walks. That has to be one of the worst K/BB ratios for a no-hitter.

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  38. Ivdown says:

    What’s wrong is he hadn’t thrown his no hitter yet, haha.

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  39. ang says:

    The odds of a .265 BABIP team like the White Sox not getting a hit on 25 balls in play is about 1/2200. Considering there are 4860 games started per year, you’d expect something like this to happen about twice a year.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      Yeah, but not every team has a .265 BABIP. Crazy how much that changes things. With a .300 BABIP, you’d expect to get 25 BIP all be outs only 1/7500. So closer to once every other year.

      If you just meant something this odd happens about twice a year, then I apologize for the correction.

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  40. CircleChange11 says:

    The White Sox might be the cure for any of these “What’s Wrong With …?” articles involving AL pitchers?

    When do the ChiSox face the Orioles rotation?

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  41. TFINY says:

    And then he throws a no-hitter. As a twins fan, I would appreciate some consistency, you know? Although this is better than the alternative.

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    • TFINY says:

      Although 6 walks doesn’t really inspire confidence. I wonder how likely that is. Time to go play with B-R I think.

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  42. reillocity says:

    I made a comment like this under the “What’s Wrong with Adam Dunn?” post, but I’d like to see some “What’s Right with Charlie Morton?”, “What’s Right with Alex Gordon?”, “What’s Right with Justin Masterson?”, “What’s Right with Brett Wallace?”, “What’s Right with Kyle Lohse?”, “What’s Right with Alex Avila?”, “What’s Right with James Shields?”, “What’s Right with Russell Martin?”, “What’s Right with Ryan Roberts?”, etc. articles to offset the recent plague of “What’s Wrong with …?” articles.

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    • Phillie697 says:

      There HAVE been articles talking about Masterson and Wallace recently… Maybe you should log on more often.

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  43. Anthony says:

    “worst no hitter” isn’t that like being the dumbest genius? sure he was probably effectively wild and sure the Chicago White Sox bats suck more than Hawk Harrelson on commentary (k, not that bad but still). However, it’s still a no hitter and it’s still impressive. Right? Or do stats show it’s not somehow impressive?

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    • zkolodin says:

      No hitter=always impressive. Though there were some obvious flaws: his FIP was 4.72 and his xFIP was 6.38.

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    • Jason B says:

      “No hitter=always impressive” – totally agreed. I would rather be lucky than good. I’ll donk my way to a WSOP win and an $8MM payday, even if I suck out repeatedly along the way and am the worst main-event champion ever. (Step aside, Jamie Gold! Clear a path, Moneymaker! Outta my way, Varkonyi!)

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  44. Omar says:

    Well…last night’s effort was definitely a good start towards righting the ship.

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  45. Sbg says:

    And the only run was a home run by Jason Kubel. #hinske

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  46. dragonflyball says:

    Could you write some more articles about what’s wrong with various pitchers, so they can throw no-hitters too?

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  47. Sox27 says:

    Shockingly, the White Sox offense is the cure for all that ails…I hate life

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