Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is Liriano Back?

NOTE: This study utilizes stats from all four of Liriano's 2010 starts. It is worth noting that the pitcher he was in game one, looked precisely nothing like the pitcher he has been the past three starts. It is therefor possible that 25% of the data in use may not be representative of the pitcher we will see from this point on. Should that be the case, we can revisit this discussion at a later date. But given Liriano's up-and-down nature the past two seasons, I firmly believe that non-inclusion of that data would express bias, something I always seek to avoid.


In 2006, Francisco Liriano took baseball by storm, striking out almost 11 batters per nine innings, walking fewer than 2.5 per inning, and posting a huge 55% ground ball rate. It was fair to say that for 16 starts Liriano was not only the best pitcher on the Twins, a team that featured two time Cy Young winner Johan Santana, but probably the most dominant pitcher in baseball.

Of all the things a pitcher can do well, he did them all, and he did them all exceptionally well. His fastball was hard - 95.6mph on average, and it moved a ton, inducing ground balls by the bushel. His change up came fitted with a parachute, and faded hard from the swing of right handed batters.

But it was his slider that struck the most fear in opponents. It was, for lack of a better way of putting it, essentially unhittable. For the hitters unfortunate enough to find themselves in two strike counts, it was generally nothing more than a matter of time until they joined the chorus of batters making the long, slow walk back to the dugout wondering precisely where the ball they had just swung at had disappeared to.

Then one fateful evening, his world exploded at the exact same instant that the tendon in his left elbow did.

It would be a long time until Francisco Liriano would see a baseball field again. Despite front office and managerial declarations of a pitcher throwing "up to 96 free and easy...," a year and a half of rehab wasn't enough to get Liriano back. Instead, the Liriano who came back in 2008 was one who's formerly dominant slider was nowhere to be found. In his place was a pitcher who managed an average fastball velocity of just 90.9mph, a slider that lacked bite, and a change up that no longer twisted batters in knots.

But, given his reduced stuff, Liriano fared decently, particularly after returning from a demotion to AAA. He still averaged 7.93K/9 - which is above average, and a respectable 3.79BB/9. But his GB rate had fallen down to 41%. He was a shell of the pitcher he once was.

In 2009 though, the wheels came off. Liriano regained a little more velocity, back to 91.7 mph on his average fastball, but his command vanished. He struck out a few more at 8.03K/9, but his walk rate shot up to 4.28 and his ground ball rate fell to 40%. This time he was put on the disabled list with a "tired arm," but it was pretty clearly known that he was demoted because the formerly dominant pitcher was struggling mightily with his confidence. He simply didn't know what was wrong, and he didn't know how to fix it.

My how much one off season can change things.

Beginning this winter in the Dominican League and continuing into spring training, Liriano went on a 68.2 inning tour de force, striking out 97 while walking just 12. Impressive numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but also numbers compiled against questionable talent levels. I was skeptical to say the least. I've seen this song and dance before.

But after a shaky first game of the season in very cold game at Chicago, Liriano has been devastating once again. Suddenly the radar guns are popping - he's averaging 93.3 mph with his fastball. It's not the overpowering pitch that it used to be, but plenty hard to be sure. But can the Liriano who's dominated his past three outing while posting 23 consecutive scoreless innings continue his performance?

For this study we'll be doing things a tad differently than we did with our analysis' of Jake Peavy and Justin Verlander, because this situation is a bit more complicated.

Pitch Data

                       Velocity      Value/100   %Thrown
Fastball06:        94.7              0.13             43.6
Fastball09:        91.7             -1.99             56.3
Fastball10:        93.3              1.10             51.5
Slider06:           87.8              3.47             37.6
Slider09:           86.2              1.38             26.7
Slider10:           84.0              6.38             31.2
Changeup06:    83.5              2.82             18.7
Changeup09:    84.7              0.91             16.9
Changeup10:    84.4              0.44             17.3

The fastball still hasn't regained it's old velocity, but it's up 1.6 mph over last year, and creeping closer to it's old levels. Moreover, it's actually been more effective this year than it's ever been in the past, and at a 51.5% usage rate, he's going to it more than he did in 2006.

The two most important aspects of his fastball, aren't really about the speed though. He's also back to inducing a huge percentage of ground balls. /;l[p=In 2006, people generally overlooked his phenomenal 55.3% ground ball rate. As we noted earlier, that rate fell to a career worst 40.2% last year, but suddenly it's back up to 51.8% Not quite as strong as before, but more than enough to be well above average.

Where the increased velocity really makes itself apparent, is in the differential. The gap in speeds between Liriano's fastball and slider has gone up considerably, from 5.5 mph last year, to 9.3 mph this year, making it much more difficult to time.

The slider is actually MORE effective this year than it's ever been. At +6.38/100, it's actually been almost twice as effective as the pitch he threw in 2006. That's phenomenal. What's weird, he's throwing it softer than last year, as he's trimmed more than 2mph off the pitch, despite gaining about 1.6mph of velocity on his fastball compared to last year. He's throwing it almost four mph slower than 2006.

The change up is not nearly as dominant of a pitch as it used to be, but it remains effective, and he still uses it right around 18% of the time and the velocity is surprisingly consistent.

Ok, so we can begin to see how Liriano's stuff stacks up. In some cases better than 2006 (fastball/slider) and in others worse (change up/velocity). He's not throwing as hard, but he's remained extremely effective.

Swing Data

1) Liriano is inducing a lot swinging strikes - 10.7%, but that's actually the worst rate of his career. That said, it's still more than 2% above league average, which is a lot. 2006 Liriano induced swinging strikes on an outrageous 16.4% of his pitches, more than double league average. It was that ability to make guys swing at nothing but air that enabled him to strikeout upwards of 11 batters per inning.

The fact that his swing-and-miss rate hasn't improved (and has actually gotten ever so marginally worse) compared to last season suggests that we shouldn't be expecting a spike in strikeout rate. Indeed, with a strikeout rate of 8.36/9IP, we're seeing a pitcher who is striking out almost precisely as many batters as he has the past two seasons.

Summation: Liriano is getting fewer swinging strikes than ever before, and generally that means lower strikeout rates.

2) There is some reason to believe that everything I said in point one may be rendered moot. Despite getting fewer swinging strikes overall, Liriano is actually getting batters to swing at more pitches out of the zone than at any other point in his career.

At 31.9%, batters are chasing an enormous number of his pitches. This has always been a Liriano staple, as he's averaged 28.1% out-of-zone swings throughout his career.

BUT! Hitters are also making contact with those out-of-zone pitches more than ever before. In 2006 batters made contact with just 35.3% of pitches that left the zone. They swung a lot, and they almost always came up empty. This year he's getting hitters to chase more often at 30.2%, but they're also putting the bat on the ball more often than ever before at an impressive 55.0%.

What gives?

Summation: Liriano is getting hitters to chase more often, which usually means more strikeouts, but they're making contact more often too.

 3) Liriano is throwing strikes. Of everything you will read in this article, nothing is more important than this piece of information. To realize why this is you must first understand everything above. Liriano never lost his ability to strike batters out, and while there mixed signals about why he's been successful, most show that his ability to strike batters out hasn't gotten definitively better.

What is happening now is that Liriano has regained his ability to hammer the strike zone, getting strike one on 62.7% of batters, his best rate ever. He's also throwing 66% strikes overall, his best rate since his 67% mark in 2006.

Simply put Liriano is attacking hitters again. He isn't nibbling. He isn't hiding his fastball. He's saying, "here it is, lets see what you can do with it." The answer thus far has been, 'nothing.'

PitchFX Data

Unfortunately we don't have PitchFX data from 2006, so we can't compare information from then to now. But we can at least look to see what, if any differences exist between his stuff last year, and his stuff this year. As always, I'll be posting the graphs next to each other to allow you to see the differences for yourself.

Liriano has never had a clear release point, but at least now, it's more consistently at the same level. The grouping is much, much tighter.

Here the improved movement on his pitches is readily apparent. He's getting significantly increased depth on all of his pitches, along with increased bite on his slider and fade on his change up and fastball.

On a pure stuff level, this Liriano is much better than the one we saw in 2009. Particularly with the slider and fastball.

On the slider he's gained 5.74in of drop and 1.74in of bite.
On the fastball he's gained 2.23in of drop and 0.26in of fade.
On the change he's gained 2.84in of drop and 0.36in of fade.

Essentially, he's doing everything you want to do with those three pitches quite a bit better than he did last year. The improved quality of those pitches, combined with the improved command we spoke of earlier leads one to believe that the change in Liriano is due to more than just luck and that, in all likelihood, this 'new Liriano,' is for real.


I'm not certain I have a definitive answer for you about our initial question, "is Francisco Liriano back?"

He's certainly better than he was at any point last year, and likely better than at any point in the past two years. And if you take out the first game from this season out of the equation, he is essentially as good as he was in  2006 (in terms of performance at least).

He's showing vastly improved command, he's getting more ground balls, and striking out more than at any point since his return from Tommy John. His pitches are legitimately much better than they were last year and hitters are chasing his pitches more than ever.

But he's also still not throwing as hard as he did in 2006 (though the gap has closed considerably), and he still hasn't matched the phenomenal ground ball, strikeout, or walk rates that he did.

So we can safely say that a much more effective Liriano is probably back. All that's left to be determined is how much better? Liriano should be pretty effectively able to answer that question over his next 3-4 starts.

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