Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Growing Leery

Coming into this season, expectations were high for Francisco Liriano. Last year, in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, his early struggles were perfectly excusable given that he'd missed a full season and was learning to pitch with a reconstructed ligament in his elbow. After a brief (and brutal) early-season stint with the Twins, Liriano went back to Triple-A, where he eventually went on an impressive tear, earning a recall and subsequently becoming one of the American League's best pitchers in the second half. While he wasn't quite the dominator we came to love in 2006, Liriano appeared to have everything figured out in the second half last year, when he went 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA and 60-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 65 2/3 innings. We had every reason to believe he'd be an anchor in the Twins' 2009 rotation.

Yet, that hasn't happened. Through 10 starts, Liriano is 2-6 with a 6.42 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. And it's awfully tough to pinpoint the source of his struggles.

Liriano's projected partner at the top of the Twins' rotation, Scott Baker, got his season off to a rather horrid start as well. Yet, Baker missed much of spring training with a shoulder injury, so his early struggles at least excusable, particularly considering that he now seems to pulling things together. For Liriano, we're running out of explanations. As much as one would like to pass off his poor performance as a slow start, we're now almost two months of the season and he's shown no real signs of getting things turned around as his last two starts have been among his worst. Liriano's slider has looked good and he's still missing bats at a reasonable rate, but he's giving up too many hits, issuing too many walks and coughing up way too many homers. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of his performance is that he's shown no signs of returning to the ground ball machine he once was; quite the contrary. His 36.1 percent GB rate this year ranks him among the most fly ball heavy pitchers in the league.

Liriano's problems don't seem to stem from a lack of "stuff," his pitch speed averages are all actually up a tick from last year and anyone who's watched him pitch will likely agree that his slider has looked nasty at times. He's struggled with his command a bit, but even that does not fully explain his ineffectiveness; in his last start, he surrendered five runs on 11 hits over four innings without issuing a walk.

Being that we're this deep into the season and Liriano is essentially the biggest concern in the rotation, it's natural for fans to wonder whether he should be demoted -- either to the bullpen or Triple-A. One might note that a trip down Rochester got Liriano on track last year and led to his outstanding second half. My personal opinion is that the best course of action at present is for Liriano to stay in the rotation and keep working with Rick Anderson. Hopefully they can work together and solve the problems that are dragging down his performance. There's no denying, though, that if these issues persist for much longer, the Twins will have to make a move.

It may already be too late for Liriano to achieve the types of numbers we'd hoped to see from him this season. Yet, if he can find a groove and get going on a hot streak -- as he's done many times in the past -- he can still be a driving force in this team's success. Let's hope he can get things figured out.

11 comments:

Topper said...

It's really hard for me to even think this, but if Swarzak can keep pitching well I think he deserves to be up here and the one person in the rotation who just doesn't seem to be showing much is Liriano.

The bullpen actually seems like it might be a great move for him if things don't turn around for him soon. His numbers the first time through the order are still sickeningly good -- imagine him coming out for one or maybe just two innings -- he's been practically untouchable until the 3rd or 4th these days anyway.

He could be a monster of a set-up man. That would undoubtedly solve our bullpen woes putting him out there with Mijares and Nathan.

TwinsFanc1981 said...

Nick, you might appreciate this considering your experience with the I-E data but right-handers were ripping Liriano's fastball with a well-hit average in the .400's - one of the league's worst. He has been throwing fewer non-fastballs to RHB possibly making it easier to tee off of the fastball.

D'Luigi said...

Nick,

I believe it has been written that the biggest reason why Liriano is struggling is he isn't locating his fastball consistently. He hasn't hit the corners and either he misses off the plate and gets further behind or walks hitters, or he misses catching too much of the middle of the plate and big-league hitters punish those kind of mistakes.

Topper makes a good point about how dominant he has been in the early going.... maybe his issue has something to do with his mechanics later in games, is he relaxing too much after he gets through a few innings?

I hope he turns it around soon as Perkins is also having issues and we need at least one lefty starter to get on track.

Nick N. said...

I think the points made by the last two posters may go hand-in-hand. Liriano is missing his spots early in the count (particularly against RHB), and then is forced to throw get-me-over fastballs which are being punished. His command improved considerably as the season progressed last year so perhaps we'll just have to hope he can repeat that.

Topper, I definitely hear you on the bullpen idea, there's sound logic there since he's been so much better against hitters he's facing for the first time in a game. Yet, I'm hesitant to yank him out of the rotation at this point since I still think he can be a valuable starter.

TwinsFix said...

Liriano's problem is very similar to Boston's Lester. He is excellent until one inning where he gives up 3-4 runs.

What the cause of that is, I don't know. It could be any of what you guys have talked about, be it mechanics or an unneeded "relaxation" after getting through the order once.

I'm with you, though, Nick. Keep Anderson and Liriano within ten feet of each other for the next month. They will not separate, and will room together every road trip. Heck, even let Anderson sleep in the guest room at Liriano's house. Those two have some serious work to do, work that cannot be done when Liriano is in Rochester.

Liriano still has two options left, right?

Topper said...

Nick, you're absolutely right, he should be given a little bit longer to prove that he can rebound. But at the same time we're moving into June and we can't afford to keep losing like that, so a few more turns through the rotation without any marked improvements and I think 'Cisco should be looked at for bullpen help. At least Baker has shown recently that he might be getting back on track.

But as we've established here, he should stick up here in the majors near Rick Anderson at all costs. So whether it's working with him as a starter or working with him as a reliever he needs to be in Minnesota and not in Rochester.

Ben K said...

Hey guys,

Good discussion so far, just thought I would pitch in what I see. I am just going to look at the differences between 2008 and 2009, as we all know 2006 can not be compared against.

FIP
2008: 3.87
2009: 4.88

BABIP
2008: .313
2009: .327

Even though it seems as if he is a bit unlucky with his FIP far less than his ERA, and his high BABIP, I am not so sure.

So I was thinking that it may have something more to do with his approach at the plate, and the discussion above already hits on hit fastball issues. So below I look at his percentages of pitch types thrown and the linear weights of the effectiveness of those pitches (thank you fangraphs).

2008
FB: 53.6% (90.9); -3.6 linear weight
SL: 26.4% (83.7); 7.2
CH: 20.0% (82.0); 0.1

2009
FB: 59.4% (91.5); -12.6
SL: 27.0% (85.7); 3.1
CH: 13.6% (84.1); 0.7

So his approach seems to be to throw his fast ball more, and watch it get hit around more (your point about get-it over fastballs). But, we are actually seeing him throw his slider about the same, but less effective. While at the same time throwing his changeup less, and having it be a bit more effective.

What kind of surprised me is that he is throwing all three pitches in the strike zone at a little bit of a higher clip. For some reason while watching him, I thought he would be putting it in the zone less. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that when he misses the strike zone, he REALLY misses the strike zone. Which in turn are not going to fool any hitters.

Now I am not sure what to accomplish by this post, but I just wanted to take a look at some of his other numbers in hopes of figuring out what is wrong with the former "franchise"

P.S. Liriano's linear weight for his slider in 2006? 23.0. Oh if only it would not have hurt him so...

lookatthosetwins said...

Well maybe it's a little too late in the season for me to be encouraged by a 4 inning outing, but seeing him strike out 7 was very encouraging to me. His slider looked great. Although most of the hits were hit hard, it takes a lot of luck (and a poor third basemen) to get 11 hits in 14 balls in play. If he can strike people out like he did the other day, I think he'll be at least a useful starter.

As far as Swarzak goes, we're going to need to see more before we decide he's a lock for the rotation. 3 ks, 2 bb, he didn't exactly dominate. I would like to see him get a few more starts and possibly put Perkins in the pen.

Anonymous said...

Based on what's been in the media, Anderson believes the problem is "mental" - not 'Frankie's stupid or sick" but simply that, when he gets into a stress situation, his mechanics break down: he doesn't "stay tall" and/or "stay on top of the ball" in his release.

Mechanics breaking down under stress is pretty common in most sports. While there are cases where the player just never gets it (Rick Ankiel), a lot of guys do.

Given how Frankie pitched after being called back up last year, I think we still have reason to be optimistic.

BD57

(logging in with OpenId is a bear)

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