Back in 2006, Francisco Liriano pitched like a cyborg sent from the year 2029 to annihilate all American League Central competition.
The Twins southpaw, just 22 at the time, snapped off mid-90’s gas, wicked high-80’s sliders and tumbling mid-80’s changeups. Liriano began the season in relief, but transitioned to the rotation in mid May. No matter his role, Liriano’s command to batters was clear: “your bats…give them to me now.”
In 121 innings pitched, the former Giants farmhand posted an xFIP (2.35) that could only be seen with Terminator Vision. Liriano struck out 10.71 batters per nine innings, while issuing just 2.38 BB/9. He also burned worms with a 55.3 GB%. Ample whiffs, few walks and groundball tendencies-that’s the holy trinity of pitcher skills.
While laying waste to opposing batters, Liriano tossed an incredible number of sliders. He unleashed that upper-80’s breaker nearly 38 percent, the highest rate in the majors among starters with 120+ IP. The 6-2 southpaw threw his 94-95 MPH fastball only 43 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest rate among pitchers. Liriano also threw his changeup often (19 percent).
His heater was decent (+0.13 runs per 100 pitches), but the slider (+3.47) and changeup (+2.82) were otherworldly. Liriano had the lowest contact percentage in the game (65.4), and he pounded the strike zone. Francisco placed 54.8% of his pitches over the plate, compared to the 52.6% average that season. Simply put, he was untouchable. Twins fans had visions of Liriano and Johan Santana leading the club to perennial postseason glory.
But Minnesota’s terminator malfunctioned. Liriano was scratched from an early August start with elbow soreness. He took the mound against the Tigers on August 7th, but was pulled after just four innings. The Twins placed him on the DL for forearm soreness soon after, hoping that rest and rehab would cure what ailed the phenom. Liriano returned to face the A’s on September 13th, but he lasted only two frames. Tommy John surgery soon followed.
Liriano missed the entire 2007 season, then logged a hefty workload upon returning in 2008. Liriano was called up from Triple-A Rochester in mid-April to fill in for Kevin Slowey, but he was sent back to the International League after a few poor starts and wouldn’t be recalled until August. In 118 innings with Rochester, Liriano posted a 3.03 FIP with rates of 8.62 K/9 and 2.36 BB/9.
While he didn’t terrify hitters like in the halcyon days of ’06, post-TJ Liriano was still plenty nasty. He had a 4.31 xFIP in 76 frames, whiffing 7.93 hitters per nine innings and walking 3.79 per nine. Post-surgery, Liriano didn’t get hitters to chop the ball into the ground as much (41.6 GB%).
Liriano increased his fastball usage to 54 percent, tossing sliders 26 percent and changeups 20 percent. His heater lacked the same zip, sitting at slightly under 91 MPH, and that upper-80’s slider turned in to a low-80’s offering (83-84 MPH). The slider remained deadly (+2.18 runs/100 pitches), and his changeup also rated decently (+0.03). But Liriano’s fastball lagged, at -0.54 per 100 tosses.
Not surprisingly for a post-TJ pitcher, Liriano had some issues with his control. His zone percentage dropped to 47.1, compared to the 51.1 percent MLB average, and his first-strike percentage was just 48.9 (58-59% MLB average). Even so, he was difficult to square up: Liriano’s contact rate was 75.5% (80-81% MLB average), and his swinging strike rate was 10.5 percent (7.8% average for starters).
Last offseason, I predicted a big 2009 season for Liriano:
The pitcher who burst onto the scene in 2006 might never return, but the current version of Francisco Liriano is extremely talented in his own right. If his control takes a step forward, as is the case with many TJ pitchers in their second year back, look out. Sill just 25 and possessing a full arsenal of pitches, Liriano should re-establish himself as one of the better starting pitchers in the AL in 2009.
Instead, he was battered for a 5.80 ERA in 136.2 IP. Liriano missed a couple starts with swelling in his left forearm in late July and early August, then was placed on the DL with left elbow fatigue in mid-August. Upon returning in September, Liriano made just one start while otherwise pitching out of the ‘pen.
The continued health problems are disconcerting. However, Liriano wasn’t the total punching bag that his ERA would suggest.
Liriano punched out 8.03 batters per nine innings, with 4.28 BB/9 and a 40.2 GB%. His BABIP was inflated at .324, and his home run per fly ball rate (12.5%) was a little higher than usual. Liriano’s rate of stranding runners on base (66.3 percent) was also below his career 70.7% average. While he was no ace, he posted a less gruesome 4.55 xFIP.
Control remained elusive: he put just 45 percent of his pitches within the strike zone, third-lowest among starters with 130+ IP. Liriano got ahead of hitters 0-and-1 or induced first-pitch contact only 55.4 percent of the time. Despite those negative indicators, his contact rate (74 percent) was fourth-lowest among starters, and his swinging strike rate climbed to 11.6 percent.
Keep in mind that Liriano’s pitch run values are deflated somewhat due to the discord between his results and his peripherals. But even so, the difference between his fastball and secondary stuff was marked. The slider gained a few ticks on the radar gun (86 MPH) and rated at +1.38 per 100 pitches. Liriano’s changeup was a quality pitch as well (+0.91).
His fastball crept up to 91-92 MPH, but it was slaughtered for a -1.99 runs/100 value. Only Detroit’s Armando Galarraga fared worse on a per-pitch basis. As Dave Allen illustrated, Lirano’s heater gets very few swings outside of the zone, few whiffs and few groundballs.
Pitching in the Dominican Winter League, Liriano has reportedly had no injury problems and has sat 92-94 MPH with his gas.
Entering 2010, Liriano is a fantasy conundrum. He’s still just 26, possesses a sinister slider and pulls the string on a plus changeup. Even if he were to make no substantial progress, Liriano would likely be a league-average starter next season with better luck.
But in order to become more than merely average, Liriano is going to have to make strides with his heater. He does an exceptional job of throwing his slider and change for strikes, but the fastball often misses the mark. That leads to hitter’s counts, as evidenced by Liriano’s lagging first-pitch strike percentage.
Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano are locked into the rotation. Liriano will likely have to contend with Brian Duensing for that last opening. CHONE prefers Liriano (4.36 FIP, compared to 4.77 for Duensing).
Don’t forget Liriano. Exasperating as he is, he figures to post an ERA in the low-to-mid four’s in 2010. He’ll be back. That fastball needs an upgrade, however, if he hopes to terminate opposing batters.
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