An uncertain ace

Francisco Liriano has been with the Twins since 2003, but questions about how much longer he’ll be in Minnesota are popping up. It hasn’t always been a smooth relationship, ranging from threats of a grievance over service time to injury troubles and even a DUI.

As Aaron Gleeman noted, the Twins are reluctant to keep the injury prone ace around.

[Joe] Christensen is one of the best beat reporters in the country and rarely engages in speculation or rumors, so there’s definitely plenty of fire behind the Liriano-related smoke. Tom Pelissero of ESPN1500.com later confirmed Christensen’s report, talking to “baseball sources” who said the Twins are indeed willing to trade Liriano. After reading those two reports my first reaction was that the Twins are severely undervaluing what they have in Liriano. … However, if the Twins are just unwilling to pay the going rate for a young, elite starter’s final year of arbitration and first two seasons of free agency they’re either incredibly skeptical about Liriano staying healthy or drastically underrating his post-surgery performance.

This situation is best left to orthopedists, agents and Dr. Phil. Without attempting to unravel or predict, the story of Francisco and Minnesota is worth telling. You can also take your own walk down memory lane.

It started out with such promise

The Twins acquired Liriano along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski

Bobby Evans, the Giants director of minor league administration, said, “Liriano has electric stuff but has only pitched in Double-A, while Bonser is right on the cusp of being a Major Leaguer.”

The Giants had signed a teen-aged Liriano out of their Dominican academy. Things were promising for the first few years, including being named to the 2002 Futures Team. That was actually despite the first of several red flags—he had shoulder issues in 2002 and 2003.

The Twins knew they were dealing with a fragile but electrifying young arm. There was plenty of upside based on his pre-injury performance, as Jim Callis pointed out after the trade:

Liriano was one of the Giants’ top pitching prospects. He attended a Dominican Republic tryout camp in 2000 as an outfielder, but after signing him the Giants immediately moved him to the mound to take advantage of his powerful left arm. It’s one of the best in the minors—when it’s healthy, which it hasn’t been recently. Before he injured his shoulder in 2002, he was throwing 93-97 mph and showed an advanced slider and changeup for a teenager. But Liriano was shut down in July that season, and after making one start at high Class A San Jose this April, he experienced more shoulder pain. He didn’t pitch again until mid-August in the Rookie-level Arizona League.

Callis wasn’t kidding about his off-speed pitches—hold that thought.

Thrice bitten

Liriano became the star of the Twins’ staff in 2006, despite not having a spot tied up as he entered camp. Still, what started as his break-out season ended with trouble.

Forced to skip his first August start due to elbow pain, Liriano underwent an MRI. With no structural issues found, he was cleared to go with the extra rest. It was a rough start, and reports of a “muscle problem” in his forearm were followed by a trip to the disabled list and more tests on his golden arm.

After being cleared to pitch once again, Liriano progressed from playing catch all the way to making a start on Sept. 13. That ended abruptly when he threw a wild pitch and experienced a pain that he probably never had before.

Shut down for the season, Liriano was soon diagnosed with a ‘mild tear’ of his UCL. After weeks of continued examination, doctors Lewis Yocum and John Steubs performed Tommy John surgery on Liriano’s left-elbow in early November.

Despite the unfortunate ending to 2006, he was recognized by the Rookie of the Year voters, finishing third behind Justin Verlander and Jonathan Papelbon.

Long road back

After sitting out 2007, Liriano returned for 2008 with a good layer of rust. Called up from the minors in mid-April, he was sent back before the month was over. Three months later, he was dominating the International League and feeling the pinch of some alleged cost-saving maneuvers by the Twins. Supposedly fearful of letting the young star become arbitration- eligible a year early), the Twins didn’t relent until Aug. 1.

Liriano pitched well after his call-up, but wore down by the end of the season. He was back in form for spring training, and was the Twins’ Opening Day starter for 2009. This still wasn’t the Liriano of three years earlier. By late July, having done little more than struggle all season, he was once again experiencing pain in his forearm.

Put back on the DL with a “dead arm” in August, Liriano was able to return before the season ended. The first signs of full recovery came later that winter: He started to show signs of being in prime form in the Dominican.

Having gone to winter ball after the 2008 season seeking to build stamina, Liriano arrived in a Liga Dominicana de Beisbol Profesional with a bang. The lights-out performances in the Dominican were followed up by Liriano’s best season to date: He worked mroe than 190 innings and struck out over 200 batters. As Gleeman noted, only a high BABIP seemed to stand between Liriano and a better showing than 11th in the Cy Young voting. For those lucky enough to catch some streaming broadcasts of Liriano’s winter appearances, the quality stuff he showed in 2010 was not a surprise.

Liriano via PITCHf/x

You could describe Liriano as a three-pitch pitcher, but a close inspection of his work requires splitting his two-seam sinkers from his four-seam heaters. As always, the split of the fastballs is a best-effort and not perfect.

Pitches and strikes

Pitch MPH B:CS IWZ Swing Whiff
Change-up 84.9 2.7 0.493 0.489 0.336
Fastball 93.1 2.5 0.495 0.377 0.131
Sinker 93.1 1.7 0.602 0.442 0.124
Slider 86.3 2.4 0.459 0.510 0.431
2.3 0.509 0.453 0.272

B:CS = balls-to-called-strike ratio; IWZ: rate of pitches in a wide strike zone; Swing: swings per pitch; Whiff: whiffs per swing

Sinkers for strikes, and check-out the whiff rates on those off-speed pitches.

Balls in play

Pitch GB% LD% FB% PU% HR/FL%
Change-up 53% 16% 21% 10.1% 5.9%
Fastball 42% 19% 32% 6.5% 5.7%
Sinker 50% 17% 28% 4.8% 10.0%
Slider 43% 20% 26% 10.3% 8.0%
47% 18% 27% 7.6% 7.5%

per ball in play: Ground ball, Line drive, fly ball, pop-up; Home runs per FB+LD

It is not easy to lift, but batters seem just fine with taking the sinker deep when they do. Reading the tea leaves: Mistakes with the sinker are costly, but not very common. Liriano is actually good at getting ground balls on all of his pitches, at least when we look across three seasons.

Changes

Liriano makes two notable adjustments when he faces lefties; he stops throwing change-ups (35 in three seasons) and shifts his set-up on the rubber toward first base. Working from this side, he still keeps his slider on the far edge of the plate. You can get an idea of the change in angle in this catcher’s view image (click to enlarge).

Catcher’s view
image

That’s not to genuine scale, it’s manipulated to effect—but no differently than any other catcher’s view I’ll show you. Exaggerated or accurately reflected? Hard to say, but you can see the double impact of moving over and taking aim primarily at the opposite side of the plate.

Actually, Liriano tweaks three things when he faces lefties; he mixes his fastballs differently. First, look at the combined effectiveness of his fastballs.

Combined fastball and sinker performance
image

Now look at his pitch selection. In the higher ground ball and whiff rate seasons of 2008 and 2010, he was also throwing more two-seam sinkers. The change in mix is more pronounced against lefties, which fits in with the results pattern as well.

Pitch selection
image

Not a bad trick, Francisco. Are those groundball and whiff rates sustainable? Probably not, but you don’t have to be other-worldly to be exceptional.

Hey, it’s not my decision

But is it worth the risk, perceived or otherwise?

References & Resources
Historical information culled from Liriano’s KFFL page. Batted ball data from MLBAM. PITCHf/x from MLBAM and Sportvision. Pitch classifications by the author.

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Comments

  1. Lucas Apostoleris said...

    I enjoyed this very much.  A few things that caught my eye were the really high pop-up rates on the off-speed pitches.  Is that just a fluke thing?  Same thing for the home-run rate on the sinker.

  2. Harry Pavlidis said...

    Thanks, Lucas. I’ll have to park adjustment and regress them, but those are realistic candidates for being the real deal.

  3. Mat Kovach said...

    Liriano’s usage at a young age, injury history (shoulder and elbow before 28), and his slow road back make him a rather good candidate to move to a team over-reacting to something. Looking at Liriano’s history, he hasn’t gone 4 straight without getting shutdown. This would be year 4 (and something like 525 innings) after his elbow injury.

  4. Chris Ryan said...

    Great article, Harry. What do you make of the jump in velocity Liriano saw last season? Also, I saw where he used his slider more than he ever has post-TJ … are those indicators he’s completely back to 2006 form?

  5. Harry Pavlidis said...

    @Chris, I think you’re spot on, it really seems his strong and healthy and cranking. I briefly mentioned it, but when I watched a little of him last winter…you could see it then. His slider had that hard action that makes me drool, so I can see him moving towards using more against righties as a result.
    That said, we don’t know for sure, could be coaching/catching/adjustment … but it sure is fun to see a guy with nasty stuff like that, so who cares grin

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