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.