Last night saw a near vintage Francisco Liriano carving up his now former team. In six innings of work, the lefty punched out eight Twins batters, showcasing a well-placed 94 mile per hour fastball and a devastating slide piece.
It was this first weapon, the well-placed fastball, which would have been inconceivable in the season’s opening months.
Liriano’s first half of the season was marred by lack of command of his fastball. Unable to get ahead of hitters properly, the left-hander was forced to ease up on his usage of his slider. In his first stint as a starter, opponents smacked him around to the tune of .346/.435/.589 while allowing six home runs in six starts and 26.2 innings pitched.
The home runs allowed were a direct result of Liriano being unable to induce ground balls are easily as he did in the past. With fastballs up in the zone, Liriano’s ground ball-to-fly ball ratio sat at 0.69 which, heading into this season, sat at a much higher grounder rate of 0.96.
As you will see, Liriano’s fastball location had a lot to do with his mechanics. Over his career one of Liriano’s biggest struggles seemed to be battling against his delivery. His short-arm action, the various tempos and, of course, his tendency to spin out after landing have been trademarks of his style. At times, he will be able to corral this mess into some conformity and consistency for an extended period of time that will lead to strong numbers – such as in 2010. At other points, like at the beginning of the season, he will be in an utter tailspin and be completely lost when it comes to his motion.
What we saw during his first stretch of starts this year was Liriano pulling his weight away from home plate and towards the third base side
. This movement away from the target likely caused numerous problems for his command.
In this early season match-up against Evan Longoria of the Rays, Joe Mauer sits down and in with a target at Longoria’s knees:
Instead of painting that spot, Liriano’s offering travels up, slightly above the belt, over the plate:
With a pitch that high in the zone, Liriano is not likely to induce many ground balls. For his part, Longoria smacked this one for a double. What’s more, with a target miss that significant, you can see why he walked 19 batters in 26.2 innings.
Fast forward to Tuesday night. Now in uniform with his new team, Liriano had been working on an impressive stretch of outings in which his strikeout rate was up, his walk rate was down and his ground ball rate had increased.
Including yesterday’s performance, over his last 12 starts, Liriano has held opponents to a .189/.285/.301 batting line with a very good 87/33 K/BB ratio in 72 innings pitched while only allowing six home runs (three of which came in his start against Chicago). Because of his ability to command his fastball early and often, Liriano has been able to use his slider more, resulting in more swing and misses as well as weak contact (0.98 GB/FB).
In the controversial Joe Mauer at-bat, Liriano rang the Twins catcher up on a fastball that likely crossed between the batter’s box chalk and the plate. Nevertheless, it was because of A.J. Pierzynski’s location and Liriano’s ability to hit that target that Liriano was able to coax a strike call out of the umpire.
Pierzynski sits down and in on Mauer, not unlike Mauer’s target on Longoria above perhaps slightly above the knee more:
Not only does Liriano hit this spot, but his fastball is also running down and in. Had Mauer decided to swing at that pitch, the results would have a high probability of becoming a ground ball:
The biggest difference between the two versions comes at Liriano’s release point. In his offering to Longoria, Liriano’s lower body is opening up at the point of release. This was a trait he displayed constantly through his first month of starts. Meanwhile, in his pitch to Mauer, he is staying over his front leg which is directed to his target:
Many fans wonder why the Twins, instead of trading for some marginal prospects, simply did not opt to keep Liriano and hope of getting him to re-up for the $12.5 million qualifying offer. After all, his second half performance has been close to vintage Liriano from 2010 – after which most people would have been very happy extending him a long-term contract. The one-year risk, even at that price, seemed minimal.
For their part, the Twins organization had seen too many inconsistencies (not to mention injuries) like the one highlighted above to commit another year at that price. We know that the front office is risk adverse in both their free agent signings and their long-term commitments. Still, credit the White Sox for landing a pitcher who had been trending upwards and exercising better mechanics at a low cost.
Will Liriano be able to maintain these mechanics over the course of the rest of the season or, going forward, over an entire contract? By trading him away, the Twins clearly do not believe that he can sustain this pace.
In my opinion, barring any injury, Liriano should finish this season out strong and will be a high-risk, high-reward signing for another team this offseason.