Francisco Liriano is the Javier Vazquez of 2012

All stats current through July 19.

Francisco Liriano | Twins | SP | 50 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD: 4.81 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 25.2% K%, 12.7% BB%, 2.0 K/BB
Oliver ROS: 4.06 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.2 K/BB

Much like we saw with Javier Vazquez last season, Francisco Liriano is covertly bouncing back to form after an incredibly rough start to the season that saw most fantasy owners abandon hope for him.

If you peek at the surface numbers, Liriano’s season still looks pretty ugly in the aggregate. His 4.81 ERA is well below average (the league average this year is 4.15) and only recently dipped below the 5.00 mark. His WHIP (1.40) is not much prettier. He is getting a lot of strikeouts (107 in 97.1 innings), but he has given away almost enough walks to totally offset that fact (54, not including four hit batsmen). And it is not like he has been contributing wins (three on the season) to owners’ bottom lines.

But something’s happened since the Twins put Liriano back in the rotation—and it may have something to do with his velocity and better mixing of pitches (ignore the increased injury concerns from the greater than 30 percent slider usage for now).

FB Velo FB% SL% K% K/BB ERA BAA
First Six Starts 91.9 52.4% 26.0% 15.9% 1.11 9.45 0.346
Past Ten Starts 93.0 42.3% 34.3% 29.7% 2.75 2.84 0.171

It has been well established that fastball velocity is highly correlated to a pitcher’s strikeout rates, ERA, FIP, and batting averages against. Baseball Time in Arlington found that 91 miles per hour was a significant inflection point in the fastball data; pitchers with fastballs averaging above 91 mph significantly and disproportionately posted stronger ERAs than pitchers with average fastball velocities below 91. Liriano topped the 91 mph threshold only twice in his first six starts.

Look at the above chart comparing Liriano’s pre- and post-demotion statistics. His first six and past 10 starts are nearly inverse, with one data set looking like an Orioles pitching prospect and the other like a bona fide ace. Check Liriano’s full battery of relevant numbers since returning to the rotation: 63.1 IP, 2.84 ERA, 77 K (30 percent K rate), 2.75 K/BB, 1.04 WHIP, 2.71 FIP. To be sure, Liriano is still walking more than an average number of batters (28 over the past 10 games, for a 10.9 percent walk rate), but it’s a much more tolerable rate than his pre-demotion rate (14.4 percent).

A lot of this recent success likely has something to do with the extra tick of gas on his heat and better mixing his two most often thrown pitches. It also does not hurt that Liriano is inducing twice as many swings as misses on his slider now than he was to start the season (his fastball is also getting more swings and misses as well).

Alas, if Liriano’s recent string of success and increased velocity was not enough of a reason to believe, let’s check in with the xWHIP calculator for more reassuring data:
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The xWHIP calculator further confirms that Liriano’s past 10 games have been talent-fueled, not luck based. xWHIP pegs Liriano’s past 10 starts as good for a slightly sub-3.00 ERA and 1.20 WHIP independent of defensive and park considerations. Some combination of the Twins’ above-average defense and Liriano’s home park should help his second half resemble that talent line, assuming Liriano continues pitching like he has his past 10 starts. His upped velocity, better mixing of pitches and upped swing-and-miss rate (a possible byproduct of different spin and movement measured on his pitches over his last ten starts compared to his first six) also indicate that Liriano’s recent improvement is potentially somewhat sustainable.

I warned fantasy owners to keep a close eye on Liriano, whose spring statistics and spring K/BB ratio were eye-popping (27.0 IP, 2.33 ERA, 33 K, 6.5 K/BB ratio), upon his return to the rotation at the end of May. For those who have not taken the leap yet, it is time to hop on board. With 25 strikeouts in his past 14 innings, the secret of Liriano is likely out of the bag. Shockingly, as of Wednesday, Liriano is still available in 50 percent of Yahoo leagues. Half of you need to pick Liriano up immediately. The other half need to trade for him before he totally loses “buy low” status. Liriano is the Javier Vazquez of 2012.

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