Francisco Liriano returned to the big leagues Sunday, 17 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. What did we learn about his stuff?
Liriano struggled to locate his fastball and had particular trouble with his slider, a pitch he threw 90 mph during his spectacular 2006 season. Scouts clocked Liriano’s slider at 78-79 mph Wednesday and noted that it looked more like a slow curve.
Liriano said he didn’t hold much back Monday, but a National League scout at Monday’s game had his fastball clocked at no higher than 92 miles per hour, usually at 89-91. His changeup, which the scout said was good, came in at 77-79 while the slider was at 78-81.
Liriano stayed in the minor leagues for two starts following spring training, but an injury to Kevin Slowey necessitated his recall to Minnesota, and he started against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday. He pitched 4.2 innings and allowed four runs on six hits and five walks while recording four strikeouts.
Let’s look at the PITCHf/x data from his start to see whether the scouts’ concerns about his stuff from spring training are still reflected in what he threw Sunday.
Here is a graph showing Liriano’s pitch speed versus the angle at which each pitch moved due to spin. We can see that his fastball was averaging about 90 mph, his change-up was at 80 mph, and his slider was at 79 mph. Liriano threw 47 fastballs, 20 change-ups and 23 sliders. He spoke in spring training about adding a two-seam fastball to his repertoire, and I made my best guess at splitting the four-seamers and two-seamers based on spin axis and movement. He used the four-seamer mostly to right-handed hitters and the two-seamer primarily to left-handed hitters.
In 2006, Liriano’s slider was widely regarded as a nasty pitch. In his first start of 2008, his slider did not display much movement. Unfortunately, since we don’t have PITCHf/x data from the 2006 regular season, we can’t compare to the movement on his slider pre-injury.
Mark Teahen’s comment about the slider is telling, however.
I know his velocity’s down a lot. I saw his slider pretty good today. Obviously I didn’t produce, but it was easier to pick up the slider. He’s still throwing 91 and can still be a really productive pitcher, but definitely not the flash that was there in ’06.
Against right handers, Liriano split his pitches among his four-seam fastball (30 percent), change-up (31 percent), and slider (27 percent). Against left handers, he relied mainly on his two-seam fastball (65 percent) and slider (23 percent).
He struggled with his control, throwing only 51 of 90 pitches for strikes. He threw his slider most often (48 percent) with two strikes and relied on his two-seamer (42 percent) when he fell behind in the count. He struck out Miguel Olivo with a two-seamer and got Jose Guillen twice and Teahen once with the slider.
Here is Liriano’s pitch sequence and speed throughout the game. His fastball speed appears to have improved in the third and fourth innings, but some of that may be from switching to the slightly faster four-seamer in those innings.
Where did Liriano locate his pitches?
Liriano threw only three four-seamers to left-handed hitters. Against right-handed hitters, he had trouble hitting the strike zone with the four-seam fastball. Liriano identified the problem in post-game comments, “My fastball’s not where I want it. When I try to throw it inside, it stays in the middle. Try to throw it outside, it just goes away high.” The Royals did not really take advantage when Liriano got the fastball over the plate, fouling off several of those pitches.
Liriano also missed high with the two-seamer to left handers. When he got the two-seamer in the zone, to either right handers or left handers, they had good success putting it in play, collecting three singles, two doubles , and a sacrifice fly on nine balls in play.
Liriano’s change-up looks pretty good in this small sample. He didn’t throw a change-up to a left-handed hitter, but against right handers, he got a few swings and misses down out of the zone.
He threw only six sliders to left-handed hitters, but one of them was for a third strike to get Teahen looking. Right-handed hitters didn’t do much with his slider either, swinging and missing at four of them, but Liriano had trouble throwing it for strikes.
In summary, Liriano’s off-speed pitches looked fairly good, particularly his change-up, although his slider doesn’t have the bite or speed that it reportedly had in 2006. Liriano’s fastball did not look good, and his two-seamer especially got hit around when he got it in the zone. Location problems with the fastball certainly did not help him.
Finally, here is a chart of the location of the balls put in play against Liriano on Sunday.
If you’re interested in delving further into the PITCHf/x data for Liriano’s start, you can download the Excel spreadsheet I used here.
You can also find a good description of Liriano’s start by Justin Murphy at Seamheads.