When Francisco Liriano joined the Twins' rotation in 2006, he was an absolute joy to watch. His mid-90s fastball and devastating slider made batters look foolish, and as a result he racked up a lot of strikeouts. Across two levels of the minor leagues and a September stint in the majors in 2005, Liriano struck out 237 batters over 191 1/3 innings of work for an outstanding 11.15 K/9IP ratio. He carried that over to the majors in '06, when he struck out 144 batters in 121 innings for a 10.71 K/9. (For reference, the major-league leader in K/9 among qualifiers in 2006 was Jake Peavy at 9.56.)
As a fan, it's great to watch a pitcher who can make batters miss because it is the most observable form of dominance. And in general, pitchers who can make batters miss at an exceptional rate are bound to have success. But Liriano's ability to post a phenomenal strikeout rate was only a part of the ingredient to his amazing success in 2006. Another crucial component that is perhaps often overlooked was his ability to induce ground balls when batters did manage to make contact.
Liriano induced ground balls at a rate of 55.3 percent in 2006. Among American League pitchers who qualified for the ERA title (which Liriano did not due to his injury), only four had a higher ground ball rate: Chien-Ming Wang (62.8%), Jake Westbrook (60.8%), Felix Hernandez (57.7%) and Roy Halladay (57.7%). The Twins' own supposed sinker specialist, Carlos Silva, posted a ground ball rate of 43.6 percent.
There's a truism about pitching that says there are two main things a pitcher can do in order to prevent runs: strike people out and induce ground balls. These are things that a pitcher is very much in control of, and excelling in these areas lessens the need to rely on strong defense or offensive support to win games. While Liriano was perhaps the best strikeout pitcher among all big-league starters while he was tearing up the league at age 22, he was also among an elite group of ground ball pitchers. It is this lethal combination that allowed him to go 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA over 28 appearances. This is what made him seemingly unbeatable. This is why he was -- during those middle months before his unfortunate injury -- an even better pitcher than his teammate and eventual Cy Young winner Johan Santana.
Early on this season, Liriano was not getting ground balls. During his disastrous three-start stint with the Twins in April, his GB/FB ratio was a pedestrian 13-to-11. And in his first two starts back after being recalled, although he had some success, opposing hitters actually hit more balls in the air (16) than on the ground (14).
But in his most recent start last Friday, Liriano started to look more like the guy he was in 2006. Not because he was making batters swing and miss left and right -- he struck out five in seven innings, and we shouldn't expect a whole lot more than that because his pitches just don't have the same bite that they did back in '06 (not yet at least) -- but because he was able to consistently force opposing hitters to beat the ball into the ground. In that win over the Mariners, Liriano induced 14 ground balls compared to just two fly balls. And the results glowed. He allowed only two hits, and the two runs that scored against him both came on a routine grounder that Brian Buckner -- er, Buscher -- let roll right between his legs with the bases loaded.
It would be great if Liriano could start racking up strikeouts the way he did in 2006. But given his current situation, that might be an unrealistic expectation. What's not unrealistic is the possibility that he can return to inducing ground balls at a very good rate, and that's what made his start on Friday night so hugely encouraging.
When he takes the hill tomorrow afternoon against the A's, keep an eye on how many ground balls Liriano is able to get. There are more ways to dominate a game than making every hitter miss.