Thursday, May 27, 2010

Previewing Liriano

Note: This piece originally appeared here at The Yankee U.  

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After beginning the 2006 season in the bullpen, Francisco Liriano was converted back to a starter and promptly set the American League on fire like Sherman to the sea.  Over 121 innings Liriano posted a 2.16 ERA, an ERA+ of 208, a FIP of 2.55 and an xFIP of 2.35.  He struck out 144 batters, which gave him a K/9 of 10.7, and walked only 32, giving him a BB/9 of 2.4 and a K/BB ratio of 4.50.  Imagine how good the Twins would have been if he had been in the eighth inning!!1!.  I kid.  Liriano was worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement in 2006, but had elbow pain in August and September and eventually went under the knife for Tommy John surgery in November.  Liriano missed the entire 2007 season and was inconsistent in both 2008 and 2009.  At times he showed flashes of dominance, but he was often very hittable and struggled with command.
2010 has been a different story.  While he hasn’t notched a 10.7 K/9, his numbers have been very impressive.  In eight starts and 52.2 innings, Liriano has an ERA of 3.25, having struck out 52 batters and walked 17.  Here is a log of his first eight outings, courtesy of Baseball Reference.
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As you can see, Liriano strung together several excellent outings in April before hitting a bit of a rough patch in May.  At .332, Liriano’s BABIP currently a bit higher than his career average of .313.  Like always, it pays to look at the underlying factors behind this before predicting regression.  His line drive rate is 20.5%, a point higher than his career average and two points higher than his 2009 results, but Liriano is also inducing 7% more groundballs than he did in 2009, leaving his fly ball percentage 10% points down at 31.5%.  One fluky aspect to Liriano’s 2010 campaign is his HR/FB ratio, which is currently an unsustainably low 4.3%.  Historically he has averaged 11.1%.  This explains why his FIP stands at 2.67 and his xFIP (which normalizes HR rate among other things), is 3.36.
In 2010, Liriano is stranding 75% of batters that get on base.  In his 2006 banner year, that number was an absurdly high 83.2%, and 2008 and 2009 that number dropped to 68% and 66%.  It’s difficult to know what to expect from him going forward, given that he’s only thrown 410 major league innings in his entire career, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect his strand rate to be somewhere in the neighborhood of his 08-09 numbers, or slightly down from where it is now.  In short, Liriano should probably be giving up a few more home runs, but the help he gets from a correction in BABIP may negate the effect on his ERA.  At least, that’s what FIP and xFIP tell us.
Liriano is a three pitch pitcher who features a fastball, a slider and a changeup.  In 2010, his fastball has averaged 93.9 mph and in his last outing against Boston he dialed it up to 96 mph.  This is a marked difference from 2008 and 2009 when he averaged 90.0 mph and 91.5 mph, respectively, and may suggest that Liriano is just now fully recovered from  Tommy John surgery.  Liriano’s best pitch, from the perspective of Twins fans and Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Values chart, is his slider.   So far in 2010 he has thrown this pitch 31.0%,which is the fifth most of any pitcherin the major leagues this year, and would have represented the third highest percentage of all pitchers in 2009, behind Ryan Dempster and Brett Anderson.  In 2006, he threw his slider more than anyone else in the majors (min IP 100). There are some that argue that the slider is dangerous and hard on the arm, because of the supination of the wrist during release.  The Yankees often have their pitching prospects scrap their sliders and switch to curveballs, but it’s unclear as to whether they are doing so specifically because of the danger involved when throwing a slider or because Nardi Contreras simply loves curveballs.  Regardless, Liriano throws his slider an awful lot, and he is throwing it dangerously close to 2006 levels so far this year.
In Liriano, the Twins currently have a hard-throwing, groundball-generating strikeout artist.  It’s too early to say that Liriano is “back”, and it’s doubtful that he’ll ever get back to his absurd level of domination in 2006. He is, however, getting batters to chase pitches out of the zone at a rate higher than he did in 2006 and is clearly the best pitcher on the Twins right now.  The Yankees have their work cut out for them.  Given that he’s especially tough on lefties, now might be a good time to move Gardner down in the lineup and move Swisher into the two-hole.  Those bats have to start hitting soon.  It might as well be tonight.

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