In April of 2010, I was penning a post entitled, Is Liriano Back? that examined his stuff early last year vs where it had been in 2008 and 2009. Twelve months and one phenomenal season later, it feels like he might be right back to square one.
When Francisco Liriano is going well, he's s strike thrower who induces one of the highest swing-and-miss rates in the game. He'll pair a 93-94 fastball with excellent arm-side run with a wipeout slider that darts and dives and a parachute changeup that fades hard from righties. The first and last would qualify as legitimate plus pitches, and the slider is plus-plus - one of his generations best.
In terms of his defense independent metrics, you're talking about someone who has a K rate over 9, and a 3/1 career K/BB rate with a GB rate over 50%. The ideal criterion for a staff ace.
No one has ever doubted the raw talent, yet he remains one of the most vexing pitchers in the game.
Liriano has worn many labels during his time in the Major Leagues, from phenom to flameout, ace to headcase. But through the successes, the struggles, and the injuries, Liriano has remained true to who he is. He's a polite, soft spoken young man who has always worked hard and silently borne the brunt of his detractors.
When I asked him about his struggles prior to the Twins 4-3 win over the Royals last night Liriano didn't hide from them saying, "I think I need to do a better job of getting ahead in the count and not walking hitters... I'm getting behind in the count too much... Sometimes I'll make a couple good pitches, a couple bad ones, trying to be too perfect." He understands why too, citing the fact that he felt he was rushing too much.
Unfortunately, it's going to be tough for Liriano to ever truly silence his skeptics. His stuff isn't just that of a really good pitcher, it's "best pitcher in baseball" good. Sadly in all but his 2006 season, the results haven't matched. Even in 2010 when his FIP and xFIP proved him to be one of the best pitchers in the game, a .331 BABIP which was second worst in the land laid him low.
The primary reason he hasn't taken that final step likely has a lot to do with a lack of elite command. Where some pitchers can spot their fastball with surgical precision, Liriano cannot. Yet for the most part, it's probably safe to say that Liriano's command isn't nearly as bad as it's sometimes made out to be. In 2010, for example, he threw strikes on 64.2% of his pitches for strikes. Compare that to an elite strike thrower like Kevin Slowey who threw 65.9% strikes last year, and the difference just isn't that drastic. In fact, it's essentially 1-2 fewer strikes per 100 pitch game.
None of which is to say that Liriano hasn't experienced some real problems here in 2011. Where Liriano's problem in 2010 was primarily bad luck, this year he isn't finding the zone at all. Entering today's contest his strike rate was just barely over 50% and he had walked as many (8) as he had struck out. He was racking up high pitch counts, and hamstringing his team.
Beyond the problems with his control, his velocity was off as well. After averaging 93.3mph throw his first three starts in 2010, he was working at just 91.7mph with his fastball through his first two starts of 2011. His pitches still run and dart and dive as well as ever, but he simply hasn't been able to throw them as hard, or with as much precision as he had in 2011.
One notable difference as Liriano headed into his 2011 season was that this would be the first season in which he hadn't pitched in the Dominican Winter League. Between his winter ball, spring training, regular season, and post season innings, Liriano racked up almost 250 total innings pitched, vastly more than in any previous season. When asked, Liriano cited that high innings count as his reason for choosing to forgo his regular off season routine.
The fact that his season got started so much later than normal could certainly be a factor in what has been a slow start, but at the moment, all we can do is judge him on his performance thus far. And so far, it hasn't been good. Thankfully he has plenty of time to figure it out, and the stuff to do it in a hurry.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.