Friday, May 21, 2010

Liriano and The Twins Recent Struggles

A 3-game slide, some anemic offensive showings, a handful of sub-par pitching's all started to pile up in recent days. BUT, take your hand off the panic button, there is no reason to worry about this team. The Twins just completed what will likely be their toughest 7-game stretch of the season and though they emerged with only 2 wins, the worst is over and this road weary team now looks forward to a solid 9-game homestand. I don't think the 7 games were played against the toughest opponents that the Twins will face this year, but the games were against teams they always seem to have a hard time with in the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox. 

One player who has regressed quite a bit in the month of May is Francisco Liriano. His recent struggles had me worried so I went to Pitch FX to see if I could find some answers. On April 27th, Liriano pitched 8 innings of shut-out, 4-hit baseball while striking out 10 and walking 1. Yesterday he pitched 4 and 2/3 innings, giving up 5 earned runs on 5 hits with 6 strikeouts and 3 walks. Is it a velocity problem? What's going on?

April 27th:
Average FB velocity: 94.6 mph
Max FB velocity: 95.1 mph
112 total pitches
74 strikes
First pitch strikes to 20 of 28 batters
Ground-Ball/Fly-Ball: 9-5

May 20th:
Average FB velocity: 94.82 mph
Max FB velocity: 96 mph
98 total pitches
61 strikes
First pitch strikes to 15/22 batters
Ground-Ball/Fly-Ball: 4-4

Hmm, nothing there that stands out, except maybe the GB/FB rate in his most recent start, but other than that the velocity is there, the location seems to be there he even seems to be getting ahead of batters at a decent rate. Next stop: FIP.

Current ERA: 3.25
FIP: 2.66
xFIP (normalized HR factor): 3.36
BABIP: .332

For those of you not familiar with FIP, it is simply a measure of a pitchers performance in terms of the factors that a pitcher can control. In other words, FIP factors out poor defense. xFIP goes one step further by adjusting for park factors (size) and normalizing FB/HR ratio. Anyway, regardless of your understanding of it, Liriano's FIP is the lowest in the AL and his xFIP is the 4th lowest. It also suggests that his rising ERA might have more to do with J.J. Hardy's absence than anything, a thought that gains traction when you consider that Liriano's struggles started when Hardy went down.

Here's some additional insight from DomeDog:

  • It's May. For a team that hasn't been traditionally quick out of the gate (we're more used to furious late-season charges to claw back into the division race) the fact remains that the Twins are still in first place in the AL Central and have been for the bulk of the season. At this point last year, the Twins were 19-23 and were in the midst of a six-game losing streak. There's plenty of baseball to be played yet.
  • This was, schedule-wise, by far the worst road trip of the season. The only one that will even come close is a ten-game stretch in early August that will include four games in Tampa. The Twins finally managed a win in New York, snagged another elusive victory in the Rogers Centre, and then ran into two very talented young arms in Boston. Sure, 2-5 is disappointing, but I don't think there's any reason to conclude that this somehow proves the Twins aren't an elite team or that they can't hang with the AL East. Over the course of a 162-game season anyone can beat anyone at any time (sure it's cliche, but true) and even if sabermetricians can't put a finger on why it happens, home field advantage is real. Let's hope this homestand can get the Twins back on track.
  • The bases-loaded situation hasn't improved. Wait a second, so why is this a reason for hope? The Twins are batting .170 with the bases loaded, but have generated 53 chances, second in all of baseball. As I noted in an earlier post, the Twins are doing a great job of getting men on base, especially at the top of the order, and getting some more hits to fall in these situations will greatly aid the run production. They won't stay at .170 the whole season, and if they keep up the OBP, even a modest increase in bases-loaded average will help. In addition, AG noted Cuddyer's struggles with grounding into double plays (and he should be best-placed to take advantage of the Morneau-Mauer OBP machine), but points out that his GIDP rate of 24 percent is well above his career average and even though his raw number of GIDPs is the worst in the league, there are plenty of others who have been work percentage-wise. Bottom line, chances are good that these numbers are gonna get better, and with that will come some more scoring.
  • J.J. Hardy should be back soon. The mere fact that this will keep the Twins from starting both Punto and Harris on any given day should speak for itself. As AK mentioned, Hardy's range at short should aid run prevention as a whole, especially helping those member of the staff that are more inclined to induce at least some ground balls (see: anyone other than Baker or Slowey). He'll also bring back some power potential to the bottom of the order.
So hands off the panic button, this was a good team at the beginning of the season and is still a good team. There are, as with almost every team out there right now, some holes and some problem spots that need work, but I think as this season continues to progress we will see many more wins than losses and I'm looking forward to another run at the AL Central crown.

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