Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Liriano's Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Twins have dealt with their fair share of uneven performances from the starting rotation this year. It's safe to say that, outside of Scott Baker, no pitcher has been as consistent as they'd like.

For the most part, that's the nature of the beast. When Nick Blackburn or Brian Duensing turns in an ugly start, it's tough to get too worked up, because most people understand that they're contact pitchers who invariably are going to have stretches where their pitches flatten out or their luck catches up with them.

Francisco Liriano's struggles have been more inexplicable and far more aggravating. Here we have a 27-year-old with an electric arm coming off a breakout season who has basically managed to undo all the positive progress he'd made since returning from Tommy John surgery four years ago.

In what figured to be the defining season of his career, Liriano showed up to spring training with a sore shoulder -- allegedly the result of a failure to keep up with his offseason workout regimen -- and since then the left-hander's campaign has been a hideous mess, spotted with random spectacular highlights.

One of the biggest reasons that I projected a monster year for Liriano was that he suffered from horrible batted ball luck in 2010, which caused his superficial core numbers to underplay his truly dominant performance. If he could simply repeat what he did last year with neutral luck, I pegged him to rank as one of the league's finest starters.

Sure enough, Liriano's BABIP has dropped from .335 in '10 to .280 in '11, and as a result he's averaging only 7.9 hits allowed per nine innings -- his lowest rate since the surgery. Unfortunately, he has more than offset this by completely losing his ability to throw the ball over the plate.

Last year, Liriano threw 64 percent of his pitches for strikes and averaged 2.7 walks per nine innings. He issued more than three free passes in a start only four times all season.

This year, he's throwing only 57 percent of his pitches for strikes and is averaging 5 BB/9IP, which is the worst rate of his career (worse even than his disastrous 2009). He's issued four or more walks in eight starts, including three of his past four.

If he were simply throwing garbage and getting crushed, Liriano's laborious outings would be easier to accept. But what's truly infuriating is that he's actually been pretty damned effective outside of the control problems. He's hitting the mid-90s with his fastball and his slider is as nasty as ever. His swinging strike percentage of 11.9 ranks second in all of baseball. Opponents are hitting line drives only 15.7 percent of the time against him, a career low that helps explain the drop in BABIP.

When Liriano is on, he's almost unbeatable, and we've seen that on a few all-too-rare occasions this year. For the most part, though, he's been completely out of sorts, often seeming to have no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hand.

The southpaw's self-inflicted wounds are beyond frustrating to watch, and they leave the Twins in a difficult situation going forward. Do they continue to try and help him work through these recurring mental blocks -- a game they've been playing for far too long -- or do they cut bait and let him try to figure things out elsewhere, knowing full well that if he can recapture the command he had a year ago he could easily become one of the most dominant pitchers in the league?

I'm interested to hear what the masses think. I've always been a huge supporter of Liriano, but what I'm coming to realize is that I'm in love with the left arm a lot more than the rest of the package. I'd vote for hanging onto him through next year at least, if only because he remains the organization's sole chance at a true ace in the near future, but at this point I can only shake my head while watching him waste his talent and help crush the Twins' 2011 chances.


MN said...

The Twins can't help him.

Other teams have helped players that couldn't succeed as Twins. I say it's time to let him go.

Jack Steal said...


You advocated for signing Liriano to a three-year $30 million dollar deal in the off-season. looks like your not the genius that you think you are. You ended up being right about keeping J.J. Hardy as shortstop as the position has been a huge problem this year. However keeping Liriano another year would be just too painful to watch. Get what you can for him in the winter and move on. He has terrific stuff but one good outing followed by 2-3 bad ones does not help the team.

Anonymous said...

Let him work himself out of it. Even in his worst command issue, the other team couldn't square him up. Those hits were mostly infield singles.

Liriano at his worst is still nearly as good as Blackburn, Duensing on average.


cy1time said...

On the bright side, if the Twins don't trade him, they should be able to lowball him in arbitration.

Anonymous said...

The Twins took a lot of heat for the whole "pitch to contact" thing with Liriano, but what they were really trying to do is to get him to throw more strikes, which has obviously been his problem this year.

I think you keep him through next year at least unless you get blown away by a trade offer. Especially if they trade Slowey.

Anonymous said...

It's time to face reality that this team is not very good and it's not just the injuries. There is a general lack of front line talent across the board. They are going nowhere without a true Ace on the mound. I'd back the truck up and unload some MLB talent (D. Young & Slowey) and prospects (Hicks & Bromberg) for Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez. This season is done - don't waste prospects on retreads like Uehara, Bell, and Rauch.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that the Twins should insist on keeping him. I would really hate to see Liriano flourish in another uniform. Give him time. That's all the Twins can do at this point.

SadPanda said...

I think it depends what we could get for him. Honestly I don't think the offers would be that great, in which case I agree that we should hang onto him for another year. If someone wants to give us a good offer than go for it, I just don't see that good of an offer out there.

Watching him continuously walk batters is one of the most frustrating things because you know he has the ability, he just isn't throwing strikes.

Anonymous said...

I heard Blyleven analyzing Liriano's delivery and it was really interesting. If you watch him pitch he falls all the way back around toward 2B in his follow-through. Almost like a discuss thrower. What this causes is a release point that is not very repeatable - hence a lack of control. I am not a pitching expert, but I always wonder how much of this lack of fundamentals is physical and how much is mental? Why can't Liriano see this and fix it? He's 27 now and should be a serious veteran by now. I think at this point he's pretty much shown any growth and development you're going to get. I still think he's valuable as a back of the rotation guy, but he's clearly never going to repeat 2006. Key now is to not overpay him like he's an ace.

Matt said...

I'd back the truck up and unload some MLB talent (D. Young & Slowey) and prospects (Hicks & Bromberg) for Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez.
And why would the Rockies take that deal? Where do people come up with these fantasy trades, lol?

Frankie has poor mechanics and a poor attitude. Teams in a pennant race might overpay, and I'd listen if I were Billy Smith, but otherwise you ride his contract to the end (hopefully lowball in arbitration) and see if value emerges out of this guy either for your own team, or in a trade for prospects and such.

Anonymous said...

The list of players for Jimenez was for illustration purposes. I don't know what it would take to get him - I was only trying to show an example of how seriously the Twins should be trying to get a pitcher like him for next season. They haven't had a true Ace since Santana left for NYC - and I know it's easy to say they need one. Every team does. The trick is finding a way to make it happen - and pay off (not sure the Mets would do that deal again given his injury issues).

Nick N. said...

You advocated for signing Liriano to a three-year $30 million dollar deal in the off-season. looks like your not the genius that you think you are.

Ha. If the Twins' biggest problem right now was being locked into Liriano for two more years I'd be OK with that. At least he's young and talented, with the potential to bounce back.

USAFChief said...

Yeah, Liriano is incredibly frustrating, but the key point is this: Liriano represents the Twins best chance of having an ace in upcoming years. They are not going to be able to trade for one, there isn't one in the system, and they won't sign one in free agency.

Use this poor season as leverage to sign him to a reasonable 2 or 3 yr deal, and hope. If healthy, he's not significantly worse than whatever else the Twins will run out there in 2012/13, even if he doesn't get more consistent.

If he does harness his command, you've got a top of the line pitcher. If he stays the same, he's overpaid but not terrible. If he regresses, you're not saddled with a long term terrible contract.

The pitcher to trade is Pavano, who shouldn't have been signed in the first place.

Nick N. said...

I agree with Chief. I suspect the Twins do not.

Anonymous said...

disagree on pavano. he is what he is, a solid mid rotation starter. if you're expecting more than that you'll be disappointed but shouldn't expect him to be more than he is.....i definitely want him around next yr. he eats innings, he's a pro and he's not afraid of a big game--and we ARE going to be playing big games next year.

Anonymous said...

It's happening!

TT said...

JJ Hardy has had one REALLY good month, June. He is hitting .207/.241/.341 in July. The Twins are much better off with Nishioka, who at least has some future, and Pavano.

The Twins are hardly finished. Its pretty obvious the Twins biggest problem this year has been staying healthy. They are still missing Span and Morneau and are only 7 games out. For good or ill, they have nine games left against Detroit and its not impossible they will have Morneau available for all nine.

Obviously Liriano did not have a break out year last year. He has been consistently overrated by fans impressed by his strikeouts, while ignoring his inconsistency.

Fortunately the Twins front office is smart enough not to hand a guy like that a three year contract at a highly inflated rate based on his "promise" and one successful season.

TT said...

One other thing. Liriano has kept his BABIP below .300 in only two months in the last two years. April 2010 and May 2011. He often gets hit hard when he doesn't strike batters out.

His best outing this season was that no hitter where that wasn't true. But that was a rarity. Otherwise he has a hard time getting hitters to swing at a pitchers' pitch.

USAFChief said...

JJ Hardy has had one REALLY good month, June. He is hitting .207/.241/.341 in July. The Twins are much better off with Nishioka

For reference sake, Nishioka's July line: .243/.303/.257. 20 pts lower in OPS.

This is too easy.

Nick N. said...

The Twins are hardly finished. Its pretty obvious the Twins biggest problem this year has been staying healthy. They are still missing Span and Morneau and are only 7 games out.

OK, that might help explain why the offense has been bad, but what's your excuse for a pitching staff that has largely been healthy allowing 4.78 runs per game -- third-worst in the AL?

I'd say the problem is that the this team just isn't all that good. They were pretty close to full strength on their latest homestand and still went 6-6 before getting annihilated last night.

Fortunately the Twins front office is smart enough not to hand a guy like that a three year contract at a highly inflated rate based on his "promise" and one successful season.

Yes, they'd rather hand an inflated three-year contract to a terrible shortstop based on bad scouting intelligence and one superficially successful season in NPB. Smart, indeed.

USAFChief said...

BTW, TT, Hardy tonight is 2-3 with 2 dingers. I must say, your timing is as impressive as your analysis.

Drew Madison said...

You know, I think people still think Liriano can come close to the dominiance he showed in '06. Not match it, but come relatively close. I think the 2010 Liriano is as goos as he's ever going to be (post surgery) in a Twins uniform, and even then Liriano wasn't reliable. I don't think that Liriano is as terrible as he has looked lately, but to not even match his success from last year is defnitely a regression on his part.

That's my biggest beef with him, his inconsistency. You never seem to know what Liriano is going to show up at the ballpark; is he the guy that works and prepares before the game like a Johan Santana in his prime? Or is he the guy that shows up out of shape with a sore shoulder in spring training?

The mental side of the game is Liriano's biggest flaw, even more than his lack of control. Liriano needs strong personalities (i.e. pitching coach and/or pitcher or catcher) around him that he respects and trusts implicitly. This is just speculation, but I think Liriano is somewhat fragile on the mound. Notice how when he isn't pitching well, how many times Mauer or Rick Anderson come out to the mound to calm him down. I don't think he really trusts the Twins management, or for that matter Joe Mauer when Liriano is pitching. I think Liriano pitching to Rene Rivera is the best way for the Twins to get out of him what they can this year. His best stretch of pitching this year came when Rivera was catching him regularly.

When Liriano is able to master his emotions on the mound and pitches relaxed, then he does show the ace potential everyone wants him to realize. The question is can Liriano master his emotions here or does he have to go somewhere else with different people speaking in his ear? That I don't know.

TT said...

Yep. What you need is a guy who t's off on bad ptiching along with everyone else on the team i. Its about as useful as all those runs the Rangers scored last night.

The reality is that Hardy isn't very good and hasn't been for several years. Whether Nishioka is any better we have yet to find out. But he is younger, faster and has better range.

"allowing 4.78 runs per game -- third-worst in the AL?"

They had a bad couple months. Just like they had a bad night last night. The season is 162 games long and last night only counts as one of them, no matter how many runs they gave up.

All of these discussion suffer from the problem of drawing firm conclusions from aggregates. Hardy has one good month, Liriano has a couple months where he gets weak batter balls and the Twins have a couple bad months followed by a good month and a more normal month.
Some of that will get washed out by the end of the season, some of it won't.

Dan said...

Personally, I don't think the Twins should stick with him much longer. He's going to be getting raises through arbitration, and I just don't think that's a sound investment. Liriano doesn't take care of himself which means he'll be at a greater risk of injury and ineffectiveness. I'd rather see the Twins give that money to a player who works hard but might not be as electric as Liriano. The 'peaks' won't be there with a player like that, but neither will the excruciating valleys...

That being said - it's too bad the Twins didn't get something for him this past winter. Maybe other teams have the same reservations about him and weren't willing to give anything up. It's also hard to tell when you should sell high on a player, but I feel like the Twins had a pretty good idea - and I'm betting that's why they didn't want to sign him to a long-term deal.

mgraves said...

TT--two bad months when the season is four months old is not a "mirage". While the Twins' starters have performed very well at times, they have performed poorly--as you say--for two of four months in the season, thus far. The take-away would seem to be that they are inconsistent and not terribly trustworthy.

It is a six month season and when one third of that season--best case scenario--is "third worst in the league", success cannot be expected.