Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lee and Liriano

As you might have heard, advanced statistics view Francisco Liriano quite highly this year. His combination of a high strikeout rate, high grounder rate and relatively strong walk rate have made him a sabermatrician's dream, as he ranks first in the majors with a 2.33 FIP and second only to Roy Halladay with a 3.00 xFIP (the latter metric penalizes Liriano slightly for what it views as an unsustainably low home run rate).

Of course, Liriano's actual results haven't been quite as strong as those figures would have us believe. He leads Twins starters with a 3.45 ERA but hasn't been quite the innings eater that, say, Carl Pavano has been. (Liriano has completed eight innings in a start only three times this year, while Pavs has done it nine times.)

The ability to regularly pitch deep into games is an extremely valuable skill. It is one that often eludes pitchers like Liriano, who throws very hard and often uses a high number of pitches in an effort to rack up strikeouts. Liriano is great, but he's not necessarily all that efficient, a flaw that is reflected in his less-than-stellar innings total and his unspectacular 1.28 WHIP.

That's what's so thoroughly impressive about the man who will toe the rubber opposite Liriano this evening. Cliff Lee also rates highly in most sabermetric categories, with a 2.55 FIP that ranks third in baseball and a 3.28 xFIP that ranks sixth. But he's also averaging well over an extra inning per start in comparison to Liriano. Lee has hurled seven complete games and averaged nearly eight innings per turn this season.

How does he do it? Durability is certainly a factor; Lee's arm doesn't wear down to the same degree as Liriano and he's routinely been pushed well past the 100-pitch mark this season. The key to Lee's approach, however, is his efficiency, rooted in the fact that he doesn't walk anybody. And I almost mean that literally. He's issued only 11 walks in 174 2/3 innings this year, and in that same span he's struck out 151 batters. That's good for a 13.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio that almost defies belief. The previous single-season record in the K/BB category is 11.0, set by Bret Saberhagen in 1994. Jim Whitney finished at 10.0 in 1884, an no other starting pitcher in major-league history has even managed a double-digit rate. What Lee's doing this year is historically amazing.

Liriano is special too, in his own way. He's one of baseball's best strikeout artists has amazingly allowed only thee home runs in 24 starts this year thanks to his ability to consistently keep the ball on the ground. His stuff is dazzling, but he's been susceptible to lapses in command, especially over the past couple weeks while he's been dealing with a bout of dead arm. Heck, in his last three starts, Liriano has issued more walks than Lee has all season, and as a result Liriano has looked a lot more like the trainwreck who struggled through the '09 campaign than a front-line ace on the same level as Lee.

Hopefully the additional rest Liriano was provided prior to tonight's start helps him pitch more like the guy who has dominated opposing lineups for much of the season. If so, we could be in for a treat as two of baseball's very best southpaws square off.

If not, the Twins will be in for some trouble tonight, and perhaps for the rest of the season.


Jesse said...

I'm not the biggest fan of living in the UK, and it's nights like tonight that really drive that fact home. I'll be watching Lee v Liriano on delay tomorrow afternoon, around the time the sun comes up in your half of the world.

Nick N. said...

I feel for you. This is one of those can't-miss games.

Jack F. Torse said...

When you watch tonight notice how seldom liriano gets swings and misses from his fastball.

Steve L. said...

This game is a Playoff Atmosphere/Game Pre-Test. 2 Top Pitchers on Division leaders squaring off...I would really like to know how good the Twins would be right now with Mournsie in the lineup...

Nick N. said...

I don't think anyone has any illusions about the quality of Liriano's fastball. At it's best, it's just a decent offering designed to set up his devastating slider.

Anonymous said...

Posters and bloggers assumed a lot of things about tonight's game ("probable sweep" "Lee is dominant pitcher in the AL", etc.) which failed to take into account:

1)The Twins' ability to get off the canvas when the chips are down the most, often against the opposition's top 1-2 starters.

2) The fact that Cliff Lee is likely the one with the much more "tired arm", not Liriano. (after tonight's game, in six starts in August, Lee has a 6.20 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP and has a W-L of 1-4 with another bad outing, ND, and loss to the Yankees) His ERA has risen from 2.40 to 3.26 since his last start in July, this is nothing short of disastrous and should have been taken into account. (I wonder what the line in Vegas looked like, I bet there was "smart money" all over the Twins).

3)A continuous rotation of guys seemingly left for dead (Cuddy, Young, Thome tonight) coming through with big, timely hits, and, a recently much-maligned starting pitching staff throwing a pretty decent set of 4 road games in the Texas heat and against one of the top 4-5 clubs in the AL.

Anonymous said...

How do you figure lirianos pitch inefficiency leads to a large whip? Id say his unlucky whip plays a part in his perceived inefficiency not that other way around. No one gives up more cheap hits than liriano on the twins staff.

And even before tonights butt kicking liriano >> lee. I know everyone loves guys that pitch deep into games, maybe because it reminds them of baseball in the 70's (when men were men), but with the pitch count the only way you pitch deep into games is to have a fair number of balls put in play. If you have lots of balls put in play the outcomes become a matter of chance. Ill take the K's and GB's.

Ed Bast said...

Hey, nice win last night! Feeling lots better about Frankie, and it was good to see Delmon drive in some runs.

Anon, though Lee wasn't very good last night, he's still the guy I'd want to start in Game 7 of the WS.

Nick N. said...

How do you figure lirianos pitch inefficiency leads to a large whip? Id say his unlucky whip plays a part in his perceived inefficiency not that other way around. No one gives up more cheap hits than liriano on the twins staff.

Well, for one thing, he certainly walks more people than Lee. In addition, whether lucky or not, he allows more hits. So he just generally has to face more batters to get through innings.

rghrbek said...

-- Par for the course: Liriano threw one changeup to left-handed hitters, going almost exclusively fastball (21) - slider (15).
-- Not par for the course: Liriano threw more changeups (28) than fastballs (25) to right-handed hitters. The slider came out nine times.

Who has determined that lefties can hit his change up? Not sure why Mauer never calls for that against lefties.

rghrbek said...

Oh yeah, I got those pitching lines from Twinkietown blog