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James Richter

Joe Mays, Francisco Liriano and Ricky Bobby

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On April 16th, 2000, I went to the Dome to see the Twins take on the Orioles. Joe Mays vs. Sidney Ponson - what an auspicious pitching matchup that was! Mays took the mound and proceeded to lose the game with dizzying speed. Homer, single, double, 2-run single, groundout, 2-run homer. 6 batters and 20 pitches into the game, he’d allowed 5 ER on 5 H.

Undoubtedly, someone was up in the bullpen. Perhaps there were some derisive cheers when TK walked out to the mound. After all, this was even worse than Mays’ previous start, when he gave up 7 ER on 4 H and 4 BB in 1.1 IP. To that point in the young season he had allowed 17 ER on 17 H (3 HR) and 4 BB, an 18.37 ERA. We were all justified in thinking that Mays sucked. He would have been justified in feeling that way about himself.

But after a short conversation, TK walked back to the dugout without taking the ball. I don’t know what was said, but the message I got in the bleachers was something like, “Joe, I’m not going to let you abuse this bullpen any more. You’re going to stay out here for 100 pitches. You can keep letting them smack you around the field, or you can make an adjustment and compete. You’re a big league pitcher, and we expect you to get outs. Now go do your job.”

To my amazement, Mays went on to complete the next 7.2 IP in just 86 pitches, scattering 3 H and 0 BB while striking out 7. While he continued to take his lumps throughout his 2nd MLB season - 6 of his subsequent 25 GS were clunkers - for me this game came to symbolize a turning point for Mays. Injuries would soon erode his mediocre stuff to the point that he was hopeless. But from the moment of that mound visit to the end of the 2002 regular season, he averaged about 6.1 IP/GS with a 4.14 ERA. (If you give him a mulligan on April 2002, when he was clearly trying to pitch through injury, things look even better.) That’s pretty similar value to what Carl Pavano has given the Twins. Mays’ upside was back-of-the-rotation innings-eater, but he needed a kick in the pants to reach his potential.

Which brings us to Francisco Liriano. His first three starts have been every bit as horrid as Mays’ in 2000. Unlike Mays, he has the stuff to be elite. He had a brilliant spring, and looked awesome mowing down the side in order in his first inning in Baltimore. Then a good hitter hit a good pitch out of the park, and the wheels came off. It’s a shame that Liriano’s self-confidence is so brittle that it could be shattered with one swing. But it’s inexcusable that the Twins should have enabled his downward spiral by taking him out so early that day.

The WHIP looked terrible, but several of the hits were balls the IF got leather on. The last hit he allowed was a little jam-shot blooper. They weren’t exactly knocking him around the field. But he was out after 4 IP and just 74 pitches. If Valencia hadn’t clanged that 2-out “double” (which another scorer might have ruled an error), Liriano would have allowed just 3 ER in those 4 IP with only 65 pitches. Either way, would they have pulled Pavano from that game? Or Blackburn? I doubt it. And I bet we’ll find over the next couple of months that they won’t pull Marquis from that game, either.

How about the second start against the Angels? Liriano had one bad inning, then got on a roll over which he retired 10 of 11 batters. He walked the guy who had taken him into the 2nd deck, then gave up a one-armed double just fair down the line on a pretty decent 1-2 changeup. At 91 pitches, with the 8-9-1 hitters due up in the next inning, he was pulled. Would any of the other starters have been pulled under those circumstances?

By yanking Liriano so early in these games, Gardy has sent the message that he doesn’t believe Frankie can get anybody else out. Liriano seems to have gotten the message. He has pitched progressively worse over his 3 GS - he was legitimately putrid against the Yankees, like he was scared to throw the ball over the plate. His manager’s blatant lack of confidence in him can’t be helping. That has to change. Liriano needs to make friends with the fear. His next bullpen session should go something like this.

Do what TK did, Gardy. Take away the net. On Sunday morning in Tampa, tell Liriano that he’s going to throw 7 innings. He can do it in 90 pitches or 150, but he’s not coming out of there until he gets at least 21 outs. Maybe that will get him attacking hitters again. It worked for Mays. Tough love - you know how it's done. See what happens. Maybe it will make Liriano better. I don't see how it could make him any worse.

Updated 04-18-2012 at 04:30 PM by James Richter

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Comments

  1. ashburyjohn's Avatar
    On Sunday morning in Tampa, tell Liriano that he’s going to throw 7 innings. He can do it in 90 pitches or 150, but he’s not coming out of there until he gets at least 21 outs.

    One caveat to this. You can't bluff, and you have to have a Plan B just in case. If you are at the point of putting him into the bullpen with one more failure, then this strategem is as good a shot as any. If he has to come out after 4.1 innings anyway, then he's banished to the bullpen; if that wouldn't be your move, then you can't try this ultimatum.

    Since I'm ready to put him in the pen, I like your idea.
  2. nokomismod's Avatar
    I just don't have any confidence in him right now. I would argue that Mays had good stuff and decent control. Sometimes Mays had problems throwing strikes because his ball had a lot of movement. Liriano right now cannot command his fastball at all. I have to think the players aren't feeling very confident on the days that he pitches either.
  3. Fire Dan Gladden's Avatar
    I understand the premise: he has pitched his way into trouble, give him the freedom to pitch his way out. There are some flaws with this:

    - Liriano rarely goes 7 innings, even on his good days. Considering he is usually at 100 pitches in the 5th or 6th, that could be an issue.
    - Liriano's mental issues are due to him letting the small things get to him. One hit turns into 6 runs. Unlike Radke, who always gave up a couple of runs in the first, then settled down to throw 7-8 good innings, Liriano does not know how to right the ship while it is sinking. Letting him sink may make is mental makeup worse.
    - Twins fans are so fed up with him, one good game will not stop the skepticism or the booing. Neither would one good month.

    THe bottom line is that Liriano needs a fresh start somewhere else. He may turn it around and become a solid pitcher but (like Kyle Lohse) it won't be here.
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