What’s Wrong with Francisco Liriano?

We’re only heading into the last week of April, but it’s already been a cataclysmic start to the season for Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano. To contextualize a bit for how bad the season has been for the 28-year-old left-hander, take a look at Liriano’s line from Sunday:

5 innings pitched, 5 runs (5 ER), 4 K/4 BB, 86 pitches (47 strikes)

That’s obviously nowhere near a decent outing — he’ll be skipped in the rotation next time out as a result — but that line actually reduced his ERA (11.91 –> 11.02), WHIP (2.74 –> 2.33), and OPS allowed (1103 –> 1047).

So what gives?

The Twins certainly don’t have all the answers. “We’re kind of baffled right now,” skipper Ron Gardenhire said to LaVelle E. Neal III in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune interview. This isn’t the first time the Twins decision makers have been at wit’s end with the talented-but-mercurial young southpaw. Coming off a strong 2010 season, there was a perception that Liriano didn’t do the requisite work to keep his left wing in shape entering the 2011 season, and the result was an ERA a run-and-a-half higher, two fewer whiffs per nine, and a K/BB rate that was more than halved. And that’s nothing to speak of the 60 inning decrease Liriano incurred, as he was unable to stay healthy toward the end of the season and finished the campaign working out of the bullpen.

It appeared for a moment that Liriano might be ready to shake off the rough 2011 season this spring. Liriano paced all hurlers in spring training in strikeouts with 33, and carried a 2.33 ERA in addition to a 1.11 WHIP. In late February, Liriano told ESPN 1500’s Phil Mackey “I feel way better than I did last year. It’s a good thing.” That positivity lasted through exactly three hitters this season, as Liriano fanned Nolan Reimold, J.J. Hardy, and Nick Markakis in succession before Adam Jones tagged him for a home run leading off the second inning in the season’s second game. It’s been all downhill from that point.

The pre-game talk prior to Sunday’s outing was that Liriano would scale back the two-seamer, a pitch Liriano has toyed with the past few seasons but hasn’t fully mastered. Take a look at Liriano’s pitch chart from that game versus the Rays against RHH (Carlos Pena was the only LHH starting for the Rays that day; he was 0-2 with a pair of free passes):

For one, I only count four-seam fastball — the pitch Liriano himself suggested spurred his spring success — in the strike-zone. So not only did Liriano not ‘scale back’ on the two-seamer, he threw it almost exclusively! That has been the case pretty much all season, as Liriano has just about scrapped the four-seamer — chucked in only 4.9 percent of his offerings — in favor of the two-seamer which he throws nearly half the time. As you’ll see below in the plate appearance where he walks Evan Longoria on five pitches, the pitch gets plenty of natural movement, but Liriano has no idea where it’s going. The next plate appearance also resulted in a four-pitch walk.

One need not be a pitching coach to see he’s all out of whack here. Either his arm is dragging behind, or he is just not getting his release point down, but to right-handers, he’s had virtually no luck locating this pitch at all. In fact, he’s not really locating anything, as his 57 percent strike rate will attest. Take a look at his pitch charts from all four starts he’s made thus far (v. RHH):

On the good side, Liriano is missing mostly down with the sliders, but he’s missing up far too often with his heaters, likely resulting in his 91.0 percent zone contact rate (especially when figured with decreased velocity). Now, it’s not entirely impossible to see the logic behind Liriano’s pitch selection. In 2010, when Liriano was a six-win pitcher, he threw the two-seamer almost exclusively, before inexplicably returning to four-seamer in his rough-and-tumble 2011 campaign. This season, there’s just one problem — beyond location — that is. He’s lost two MPH off that two-seamer — across the board, really —  from 2010 and that combined with spotty location is why Liriano is not only walking more guys than he’s fanning, but also getting flat out pummeled (in a smaller sample size, LHH are actually hitting Liriano harder).

So where does Liriano go from here? Well, he’s slated to miss a start before returning to his slot against the Angels in Los Angeles early next week. I’m not a pitching coach, nor do I play one on TV, but I would suggest he return to the four-seamer until his location is cleaned up, and take his lumps with his sub-standard heater until he can regain the command that allowed him to move the two-seamer in and out of the strike zone with aplomb back in 2010. One note around the Twin Cities was that pitching coach Rick Anderson had instructed Joe Mauer to simply set up over the middle of the plate and have Liriano pitch to that spot, and let the natural movement do what it does. Nonetheless, it isn’t working.

But I do think there’s a good chance Liriano could be going through a bit of a dead-arm period. After an innings decrease last season, he not only threw this winter — 30 innings in winter ball down in the Dominican Republic — but he also was a bit ahead of the curve during spring training, throwing longer bullpens earlier in the spring, presumably to keep himself fit and to chase away his 2011 demons. The Twins really have no choice but to let the free agent to-be fight it out in the rotation, as one-inning bullpen stints aren’t likely to benefit either side, and the Twins’ next option to patch up the beleaguered rotation is Scott Diamond.

 




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In addition to Rotographs, Warne is a former Minnesota Twins beat writer for 1500 ESPN Twin Cities, and current sportswriter for Sports Data LLC in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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

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  1. herve houchoua says:

    desolé pour cette reponse en Francais .

    j ai LIRIANO dans ma “fantasy team” dois prendre Jarodd PARKER a sa place ?

    C est dommage car je pense que LIRIANO peut repartir dans le bon sens , mais quand ?

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  2. herve houchoua says:

    merci “Mr Warne” pour votre reponse rapide , je vais “drop” et “add” dans la prochaine minute .

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  3. opisgod says:

    The thing is, Liriano probably isn’t pitching any different than he was in 2010. Even in that year, he didn’t have much of a clue where his fastball was going, so he just lobbed it at the strike zone and hoped for the best. Liriano has never had good fastball location, and its only purpose is to set up his nasty offspeed pitches. In 2006 and 2010 Liriano had plus velocity, sitting at 93-97 MPH. Combine the natural movement with that velocity and the constant threat of his nasty slider or changeup making it impossible to sit entirely on his fastball, and it is a very difficult pitch to hit well even if it is located in meatball territory. As a result, Liriano could just lob his fastball down the middle until he got 2 strikes, and then bury sliders until the next hitter came up to bat.

    But now Liriano is sitting at 90-93 on his heater. At that velocity it doesn’t matter how much his pitches move if they are poorly located, because it isn’t fast enough to blow past hitters. Now Liriano can either continue lobbing diminished heaters down the middle to get smacked around, or try to pitch to the corners wiith his bad command and walk the world when he misses by a mile. There is nothing wrong with Liriano, except that he is a pitches that relies entirely on stuff to be successful. As expected, when the stuff left him so did any semblance of competence.

    He isn’t the only pitches like this. Erwin Santana has basically been a poster child fir a pitcher who could be just outright nasty if he could ever throw good fastballs. For him as well, his best season was when his fastball also sat at a velocity that can mask any location shortcomings as long as it is thrown in the zone and you have a very good breaking ball.

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  4. jirish says:

    There is simply a long, very long, history of this player and this organization having a lack of communication. Frankly, I think the Twins are stupid for even having him on their starting staff. When he’s right, he’s a stuff pitcher. If there is one organization that doesn’t know what to do with a pitcher with a live arm, with real stuff, it’s the Twins.

    I think Liriano never could get his mind around pitch to contact and the constant tinkering with him robbed whatever confidence he had and whatever comfort level he needs on the mound. I bet the Giants would take him back and he’d have a better chance of seeing his career turn around there than he ever will in Minnesota.

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    • There are reasons why the Giants threw him into the deal to get an All-Star catcher.

      And the Twins have been learning about all those reasons in the years since.

      I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, I wouldn’t let him anywhere near the Giants rotation. Even Zito is preferable over Liriano, as he’s at least been healthy for the most part except for last year, when most probably his horrific car accident just prior to the start of the season affected his body more than he or his doctors knew. There is value to being a reliable about average starter, which Zito has been for the Giants (just not enough value to match his contract, but people need to get over that, that money set sail long ago, only value produced should matter; plus saber stats do not properly account for Zito’s value as a pitcher because it assumes that his BABIP would regress to league means).

      Liriano’s like the Michigan J. Frog of Looney Tunes fame. You think you have the find of the century but when it comes time for a performance, you invariably end up with a croaker.

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  5. jim says:

    his fb and slider velocity are down 2 MPH from his stellar 2010, his changeup is down, he’s not throwing first-pitch strikes to anyone (47% vs 55% for career and 61% in 2010), he’s only getting whiffs at basically a league average rate, and he’s lost all ability to throw within the strike zone (38% vs 45% career, 43% 2010, 46% 2012 MLB average).

    all that said, i think he’s the kind of guy who would benefit from a little change of scenery away from minnesota’s asinine “pitch to contact” team philosophy and coaches. maybe a little work with mike maddux or don cooper..?

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  6. I am a Red Sux Fan says:

    It could just be dead arm. Give him another month. Given how bad the Twins starting pitching is that is their only choice really.

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  7. Scott Kazmir says:

    It happens to the best of us.

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  8. monkey business says:

    “We’re kind of baffled right now,”

    I’d like to buy Gardy a shirt that says that.

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  9. ALEastbound says:

    So frustrating to watch a guy who used to eat up bats struggle so much. Even if he had a change in scenery, the change would only be slightly positive given the likely move to a more batter friendly stadium.

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  10. He’s pulling his body towards the third base line at release point causing the two-seamer – which naturally runs away from righties – to run even further as you see in the gif above: http://twinsdaily.com/content.php?443-Liriano-is-out-of-whack-mechanically

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  11. reillocity says:

    Okay, so who writes this article ( http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/time-to-worry-about-liriano/ ) again in April-May 2013?

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  12. pft says:

    Reduced velocity and command issues means he probably has a
    labrum/rotator cuff problem. You can delay surgery or even prevent it by following a strengthening program in some cases, but not always.

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  13. Mr Football says:

    Right PFT, that’s what it means. I think you meant to say, loss of velocity can sometimes indicate shoulder issues. But of course nobody is reporting any physical issue. Also, control is usually an elbow issue.

    Liranio has confidence issues and the organization isn’t doing him favors. His stuff is good enough right now, even -2 MPH across the board for him to still be above average.

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  14. Shaun Catron says:

    Don’t the Twins “encourage” their pitchers to pitch to contact? What is the purpose of having swing and miss stuff if your manager and pitching coach want you to pitch to contact?

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    • TMW says:

      It’s not really about pitching to contact as it is getting ahead in the count. ‘Pitch to contact’ was the talking but it mainly comes down to throwing the fastball for strikes. If he can’t throw his fastball in the strike zone, then his slider is useless. The hitter can just wait for the walk or the 3-1 count to hit the ball really hard. And that’s exactly what’s been happening.

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    • TMW says:

      It’s not really about pitching to contact as it is getting ahead in the count. ‘Pitch to contact’ was the talking but it mainly comes down to throwing the fastball for strikes. If he can’t throw his fastball in the strike zone, then his slider is useless. The hitter can just wait for the walk or the 3-1 count to hit the ball really hard. And that’s exactly what’s been happening.

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  15. CircleChange11 says:

    1. Rushing; his arm is being left behind (you know what I mean). *
    2. I’m not sure I’ve seen such a rigid/hard front foot landing in a major leaguer.

    * You can only tell so much from real time video.

    Honestly, I’ve often felt that fangraphs is much higher on Liriano than they should be. He “slidered” his way to a very good season a couple of years ago.

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  16. bill says:

    I see a fatigued pitcher. Its affecting his mechanics. Combine that with a moving fastball and you have a wild pitcher. Hopefully he gets re-energized after taking his next start off, and comes back with only 4 seemers. The Twins bullpen can’t take starters walking 3-5 guys every start (esp. same-handed guys).

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  17. Bbboston says:

    Three strikeout, three walks in last two inning outing.

    Based on all that I’ve read on this guy, seems to me G should simply say: “We don’t give a damn about the outcome or whether you strike anyone out, we just want to see you pitch with your body in control in a smooth delivery AND throwing a first strike. If it gets hit, so be it”.

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