To many Twins fans, the news probably inspired a palm to the face followed by a head to the desk. After all, Liriano has been as bad of a starter in the past two seasons not named Nick Blackburn -- another reason to repeat the face-palm and head-desk combination.
Since his mini-rebound in 2010, Liriano has turned in a bloated 5.23 ERA (sixth highest in that time) and has walked 12.6% of batters faced (second most in MLB). His inability to control the strike zone has resulted in the overabundance of baserunners and subsequent runs scored (hence the ERA and walk rate).
Pitchers need to work ahead and throw a high percentage of strikes in order to maintain success at the major league level. High walk rates mean quick-rising pitch counts and early showers which means more strain on the bullpen and stress on the manager’s heart. Liriano, however, has been baseball’s biggest culprit of digging himself into a hole the past two years. According to Fangraphs.com’s pitch data, his 51.7% first-pitch strike rate is the lowest in baseball.
It should be elementary but this was a very significant factor for Liriano has when he fell behind, opponents were able to reach base in a myriad of ways, in almost 50% of those instances (.498 on-base percentage when batters ahead versus .467 MLB-average). In comparison, when he was able to get ahead of opponents, he was able to retire them at a rate higher than the baseball norm (.186 on-base percentage versus .211 MLB-average).
In terms of raw stuff, Liriano has been one of the best in the game. His slider has been able to make the smartest of hitters look completely stupid once it begins to descend the other direction. Thanks to good velocity and tilt, he is able to achieve plenty of swing-and-misses (23% in 2012) on the slider but it is a pitch best used when he is ahead in the count. Falling behind more frequently in 2012 translated into more two-seam fastballs (titled “Sinker” in this chart) says BrooksBaseball.net:
Liriano’s two-seam was one of the reasons he was his own worst enemy the past two years. In 2010, Liriano, not showing exemplary command of the pitch, managed to throw it in the zone over 52% of the time. The past two years, that rate has dropped to below 50% -- 46% in 2012 -- meaning that every other fastball was not in the strike zone. Hitters may be fooled by sharp breaking pitches darting out of the zone but a fastball isn’t going to get them to bite as regularly. As such, after a season of recognizing this tendency to miss the zone, hitters kept the bat on their shoulders more frequently (36% swing rate in ‘12 versus 44% in ‘10) and strayed after fewer out of zone fastballs (20% in ‘12 versus 25% in ‘10). The end result was a grand total of 52 walks on the pitch in 2012 compared to just 27 in 2010.
A reunion with former pitching coach, Bobby Cuellar, who was recently promoted to bullpen coach by the Twins, may be the right combination to get Liriano’s game back on track. After all, it was Cuellar who had worked with Liriano on refining his mechanics which allowed him to throw more strikes -- currently his most notable flaw.
Of course, a pessimist would argue that Cuellar has not exactly pumped out any other pitchers like Liriano or Johan Santana since his return to the organization since 2007. This past year, Nick Blackburn was sent to Rochester and Cuellar was instructed to fix whatever was wrong. After several successful outings in AAA, Blackburn was recalled and proceeded to crank out a turd of start after another over his final 12 starts. Whatever knowledge was bestowed upon Liriano and Santana did not sink in with Blackburn.
What’s more is that Liriano was already suppose to be fix by White Sox pitching guru Don Cooper, who the careers of Gavin Floyd, Jose Contreras, Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton have been improved because of his instructions. While it was just two months of mentorship, Cooper, who said that he knew what was wrong with the lefty, did little to set Liriano straight (he actually fell behind in the count more while in Chicago). In fact, when he started to careen off kilter, Cooper told reporters that it was more mental than physical, something the Twins had been saying all along:
"Our point of emphasis has to be the first three pitches to get to that position. And that's what he's not getting to enough. And he's putting himself in a lot of danger."
Video does show that Liriano has some changes to his delivery from the 2010 season and a big part of that is keeping it consistent. In 2011, he was not extending the same as he did in 2010 which changed his release point. Early on in 2012, it was falling away to the third base side with every pitch and causing some arm slot issues. Can Cuellar perform the same magic as he did almost a decade ago in New Britain?
Ultimately, if the Twins believe working with Cuellar can positively influence Liriano, somehow coaxing the 2010 success out of him, then a one-year gamble with the expectation that he is a back-of-the-rotation arm would be as good of a move as signing potential injury risks of the likes of Brandon McCarthy, Scott Baker or Scott Feldman.