Occasionally, a pitcher comes along who is so good, so utterly dominant, that people stop what they’re doing to watch his starts. The day that the pitcher takes the hill becomes must-see TV for every baseball fan, an event. Twins lefty Francisco Liriano was one of those guys a few years back. Pilfered from the San Francisco Giants organization in 2003 (along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser) in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski, Liriano annihilated the American League in 2006. He punched out 10.71 batters per nine innings, while also displaying command beyond his 22 years (2.38 BB/9). In 121 innings, Liriano posted a sparkling 2.55 Fielding Independent ERA and a 2.59 WPA/LI (WPA/LI is a cumulative stat, but he still managed to rank 12th among all starters in that category).
Liriano was cartoonishly difficult to hit in ’06. While he possessed a high-octane 94.7 MPH fastball, Liriano threw the pitch just 43.6% of the time. Instead, he relied heavily upon a sinister 87.7 MPH slider (37.6%) while also showcasing a promising 83.5 MPH changeup (18.7%). Opposing batters made contact with the Dominican Republic native just 65.4% of the time, by far the lowest rate among pitchers tossing at least 120 innings. Cole Hamels, at 72.3%, was a very distant second, and Liriano’s then-teammate Johan Santana trailed him by nearly 10 percent (74.8%).
But, just as quickly as Liriano burst on to the scene, he was gone. He felt some discomfort in an August 7th start versus Detroit, and was subsequently placed on the DL with a sore left elbow and forearm. Liriano would return in September, but he lasted just two innings against Oakland before he “heard something pop” while pumping a fastball to Bobby Kielty. The 6-2, 225 pounder soon went under the knife for Tommy John surgery, missing the entire 2007 season.
Liriano got off to a rocky start upon returning in 2008 (13 runs allowed and a 7/13 K/BB ratio in his first three outings) and was subsequently shipped to the minors, but everything from that point on was a step in the right direction. The 25 year-old was often dominant at AAA Rochester, with 8.62 K/9 and 2.36 BB/9 in 118 innings pitched. Whether due to service-time issues, reservations about sticking Liriano into a playoff race and piling up innings in his first post-surgical season, or just plain masochism, the Twins kept punching bag Livan Hernandez in the rotation until early August while Liriano mowed down International League hitters. Liriano finally re-joined the Twins on August 3rd, and while his numbers weren’t in the same stratosphere as his work in 2006, he was still pretty darned good.
In 76 frames with Minnesota, Liriano struck out 7.93 batters per nine innings, while showing some wildness typically seen from TJ patients in their first season back (3.79 BB/9). Using Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP) from The Hardball Times, which calculates ERA based on strikeouts, walks and a normalized HR/FB rate, we find that Liriano posted a 4.40 XFIP. That’s not dominant, but keep in mind that we’re dealing with a pretty small sample, one somewhat skewed by Liriano’s shaky three-start beginning. From his recall in August to the end of the season, the southpaw posted a 60/19 K/BB ratio in 65.2 IP. While once again cautioning that 76 innings is a small amount of data to be working with, it is worth noting that pre-Tommy John Liriano was a groundball-centric pitcher (55.3 GB% in ’06), while post-TJ Liriano put the ball in the air quite a bit at Rochester (42 GB%) and with the Twins (41.6 GB%).
In terms of stuff, Liriano did not feature the mid-90’s gas that we had become accustomed to. His average fastball velocity was 90.9 MPH, down nearly 4 MPH from 2006. His slider was also thrown softer, coming in at 83.7 MPH (down 4 MPH). Liriano’s changeup decreased in speed, from 83.5 MPH to 82 MPH, a good thing considering it helped him retain a speed differential between the fastball and the change. Liriano’s pitch selection was also changed, as he relied more on his fastball (53.6%) at the expense of his slider (26.4%). His usage of the changeup increased slightly, to 20%. Opponents still found Liriano to be plenty hard to hit, as his 75.5 Contact% ranked 21st in the majors among those tossing at least 70 innings.
Unfortunately, there is no pitch F/X data for Liriano’s 2006 season, as the technology was not implemented until 2007. However, we can use Josh Kalk’s pitch F/X blog to get a feel for how much life Liriano had on his pitches this past season:
(X is horizontal movement. A negative X number means that the pitch is moving in toward a right-handed hitter, while a positive X means that the pitch is moving away from a righty hitter (in to a lefty). Z is vertical movement- the lower the Z number, the more the pitch “drops” in the strike zone.)
Fastball: 6.53 X, 9.88 Z
Slider: -1.51 X, 1.34 Z
Changeup: 9.08 X, 6.4 Z
2-Seam FB: 9.84 X, 7.1 Z
(I know what the data classifies the last group of pitches as splitters, but given the 90+ MPH velocity and the extra tailing action, they would appear to be 2-seam fastballs).
Liriano might not have possessed his vintage velocity in his first season back from reconstructive surgery, but his offerings still had plenty of hop. His 4-seam fastball showcased a good deal of vertical movement (9.88 Z, above the 9.78 average) while also displaying over six and a half inches of tailing action in on lefthanders. His two-seamer showed a ton of running action in on the hands of lefties as well. Liriano’s trademark slider was breaking away from southpaws (-1.7 X), and his changeup looks like it could be an excellent pitch, with plenty of fading and dropping action away from right-handed batters. It’s also important to keep in mind that Liriano’s stuff still could rebound a little bit further with an offseason of rest and training; what we saw at the end of the 2008 season is not necessarily representative of what Liriano will throw in the years to come.
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.