Friday, August 5, 2011

What's Wrong with Liriano?


During Spring Training, it was reported that the Twins didn't feel comfortable giving Francisco Liriano an extension. Most people, myself included, felt the Twins were making a mistake by not locking Liriano up for a deal that would likely be below market value if he repeated his 2010 performance. However, with Liriano getting hit hard again last night, he's now 7-9 with a 5.03 ERA. That's terrible, no doubt, but he's actually been much improved since April. So is there anything wrong with Liriano? Let's take a look.

In April, the Twins reportedly were telling Liriano to "pitch to contact" more often, which for a strikeout heavy pitcher seemed ridiculous even before factoring how poor the Twins defense is on most nights. After the year Liriano had in 2010, it was insane to try to change his entire approach to pitching.

In April, Liriano went 1-4 with an ERA of 9.13. That's not a typo. He gave up 24 earned runs during that month in 23 and 2/3 innings. After struggling mightily, Liriano told reporters before his first start in May he was going to try to go back to the way he had approached hitters in the past, rather than try to "pitch to contact."

In May, he went 2-1 with a much improved 2.52 ERA. He gave up just 7 earned runs in 25 innings. It looked like Liriano had figured it out and April was basically just an extended Spring Training, at least on the surface. However, Liriano struck out just 16 batters in May while walking 14, so it should have been clear he wasn't back to the Liriano of old. However, the performance was much better than it had been in April and definitely a positive sign.

In June and July Liriano went 4-3 with a 3.83 ERA, which means after he stopped trying to pitch to contact Liriano had gone 6-4 with a 3.43 ERA before last night. Even with last night's performance, Liriano is sitting at 6-5 with a 3.75 ERA since his disastrous April. I know it can seem like players blame their coaching when they fail, but the fact is the Twins acknowledged they were trying to change Liriano's approach and Liriano said he was going to stop pitching 'their way' in early May.

What about Liriano's secondary numbers, though? Just because his ERA since April is similar to his ERA last year doesn't mean he's pitching as well; he was very unlucky last year as his opponents' batting average on balls in play was abnormally high. It's possible he's been very lucky this year, and pitched quite a bit worse than last year, yet still put up similar numbers. Again, let's take a look.

In 2010, Liriano put up a very good 3.47:1 K:BB ratio, which ranked just outside the top 10 in baseball among starters. In 2011, his K:BB ratio currently sits at a rather poor 1.54:1. Of course, his terrible April hurt the overall numbers, but just how much? Since May, Liriano's K:BB ratio is an improved 1.79:1 but still nowhere close to last year's numbers.

Basically, 2011 Francisco Liriano has been nowhere close to 2010 Francisco Liriano, and the Twins deserve a lot of credit for not extending him during the spring. Bill Smith and company have made plenty of mistakes, but deciding not to spend more than $30MM guaranteed on Liriano was a great decision.