Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pitching to Contact

Ron Gardenhire drew heat from some baseball analysts and fans prior to yesterday's game for telling reporters he'd like to see Francisco Liriano "pitch to contact" more in order to "become a real pitcher."

This comment embittered many of those who rightfully appreciate the value of strikeouts for pitchers, but to a degree I think it was misinterpreted. Frankly, I don't think the Twins' manager was all that off-base in his remarks, even considering the ugly results Liriano came across in his ensuing outing.

Gardenhire isn't a dope. I don't think it bothers him when Liriano strikes someone out; I think it bothers him when it takes eight pitches to make it happen. If you could pinpoint one flaw in the lefty's performance last season (aside from the exorbitant number of cheap singles he allowed) it would be his inability to pitch deep into games with regularity. In 31 starts, the southpaw threw 191 innings; in just one more start, Carl Pavano threw 221 innings. Top AL starters like Felix Hernandez, David Price, CC Sabathia and Jon Lester all logged well over 200 frames.

There's no question that efficiency has been a far more significant issue for Liriano in this young season. Many will recall a televised spring training start in which he struck out nine over three innings but also threw 72 pitches. In his first two regular-season starts, he constantly tried to nibble the edges of the strike zone. He missed frequently and the walks mounted as he failed to pitch past the fifth inning in both turns.

I think Gardenhire's comments were more a response to these recent struggles than his work last season. I was struck by another of the manager's quotes yesterday, in which he mentioned that Liriano "doesn't understand how good his stuff is."

I've wondered about this. Oftentimes, and especially over his past several outings, Liriano will work too much outside of the strike zone, trying to get hitters to chase and whiff. That's all well and good when he's got it working like he did last year, but it's the exact type of style that can lead to lengthy at-bats and high pitch counts. If he's not getting batters to chase, it will often lead to short, ineffectual outings.

Saying he'd like his top starter to "pitch to contact" is an unfortunate choice of words but what Gardy really means, I believe, is that he'd like Liriano to pitch to the zone. Attack hitters. Make them swing and miss at strikes. And if they make contact, Liriano is one of the game's best ground ball pitchers so damage will generally be minimized.

Key word: generally.

Against the Royals yesterday, Liriano followed his manager's orders and attacked the strike zone. In some respects, the results were exactly what Gardenhire had hoped for; the lefty issued only one walk and entered the sixth inning with only 71 pitches thrown (over 70 percent of them strikes). It was easily his most efficient outing of the year, be it March or April.

Of course, things unraveled in a disastrous fourth inning where Liriano allowed six runs on eight hits, so the overall outing was a poor one. The key takeaway is that seven of those eight hits were singles, and the one double was a grounder that sneaked down the third base line. Many of Kansas City's hits were aided by ugly misplays from the Twins' defense.

Hitting a bunch of singles without mixing in walks or extra-base hits is not an effective method of scoring runs in high volumes. The Royals themselves illustrated this last year, when they ranked second in the American League in batting average but 10th in runs scored thanks to their lack of patience and power.

Telling Liriano to completely abandon his style and throw the ball into hitters' bats is a bad idea, but probably not an accurate depiction of what the Twins are trying to instill. The lefty needs to trust his stuff and attack the zone more aggressively. He took steps toward doing that yesterday, and while the results weren't pretty I have faith that he'll quickly round into shape if he keeps it up and if opposing offenses aren't able to dink and dunk their way to eight-hit innings too often.

With that being said, there's not much Liriano -- or any of the team's pitchers -- will be able to do if the defense continues to play so horribly behind him.


Ryan said...

I agree with you about Liriano needing to attack the strike zone and about him "not knowing how good his stuff is". It seems to happen so often that he'll get up 0-2 on a batter and then the next thing you know the count is 2-2 or 3-2. He gets a couple of strikes and then you know the next couple of pitches are going to be balls so why swing. If I could figure that out I'm sure the batters can too. He needs to attack the strike zone even when he gets up in the count. Don't throw pitches right down the middle but he needs to hit the corners.

Yesterday was a bit of an anomaly. In the big inning KC was hitting just junk balls that they shouldn't have even been swinging at. They ended up getting more hits on pitches that were balls than strikes. Days like that happen in baseball and I'm trying not to let it reflect to badly on Liriano in my mind.

JimCrikket said...

I totally agree, Nick.

At this point, umpires and opposing hitters also know Liriano doesn't like to throw in the strike zone. Hitters go up there patient, hoping to make him pitch from behind in the count and umpires won't give corners to a pitcher who doesn't throw strikes.

If Liriano will throw more pitches in the strike zone, he'll still get a healthy number of Ks.

Josh said...

Against the Royals a lot of those hits were bloops, seeing-eye singles, and so forth. It wasn't like they were hitting rockets.

Weirdly, I find myself agreeing with Gardy on this one. (And I'm not shy about ripping the manager) Liriano does need to pitch to contact like he did yesterday more if he's going to be a 7+ inning pitcher and not the 5+ inning guy he's too frequently been post-surgery.

Have to agree about the D, though. Way too many sloppy plays by the INFs right now.

JDiddy said...

I was at the game, sitting down the 3rd base line so had a great view of the double down the line. Valencia looked like an old man who couldn't quite get out of his recliner. Cat-like reflexes he has not.

I don't think it's 'misplays' by the defense, just terrible range all around. A major league 2nd baseman would have recorded two more outs in that 4th inning alone. I felt really bad for Franky yesterday, he was looking nasty. Good post Nick to confirm what I saw wrt his efficiency.

All that said I was totally in agreement when Gardy came and got him after that leadoff walk after the offense had come back.

Andrew said...

Nice article. I agree he needs to trust his stuff. It is amazing how many times Anderson and Mauer/Butera have to visit the mount. Not sure how you teach mental strength.

Anonymous said...

Liriano is a total head case. The idea of having him pitch to contact indicates that. It would have been great to get good return for him in offseason when his value was at all time high. Now he wouldn't be worth Jim Hoey. Bert is right, look at his mechanics. A study of what not to do. The Twins wanted to him to strengthen his arm in the off-season. He told them no. Then he was slightly hurt starting Spring Training. Yeah 3 starts in and he COULD recover, but about 10% of his starts are done and he hasn't shown anything. The bloggers love Liriano because of his stuff, but he has been the worst pitcher for the Twins so far this year. He not the defense has caused this team 3 losses.


Anonymous said...

pitch to contact until a runner or runners reach base (depending on the score). then get nasty. i think liriano needs to learn when to throw around the zone and when to try and get hitters to chase.

we would all prefer 5 shutout innings from him versus what he is doing now, but if he can get to a spot where he is as successful as he was last year over more innings per start, that is what we want. if he can learn to make that adjustment, we'll all be happy. If he can't, then he needs to go back to the old strike our machine and at least give us a chance. i'm guessing he can make the adjustment, it just will take a little time. all pitchers go through periods where they need to adjust, especially now with the hours of scouting and video that teams have access to.

it will be an adjustment time for the catchers, knowing what pitches and locations they can call to get a weakly hit ball early in the at bat.

Matt said...

It's gotta be a mechanical issue with him. If he doesn't "get it" by now, he's just not the guy the Twins and the blogosphere think he can be. I know there's no statistical measures for "brains" or mechanics, but he seems to be lacking in both at this juncture.
Overall, though, the Twins pitchers need to walk fewer hitters or that defense will be under even more pressure.

Anonymous said...

Its tough to put much blame on liriano for yesterdays game. It's pretty clear the real problem was that drew butera called a terrible game. Er wait, does that work both ways for drew?

Anonymous said...

As I have been reading about Frankie's struggles I am thinking, why isn't he throwing the pitch that the catcher signals for? Is this pitch selection problem Frankie blowing off the signal or the catcher signaling the wrong stuff?

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kdo said...

Before the playoff series with the Yankees last fall, the media was all over Liriano and his top rated skill set. He has excellent stuff in game 1 and it mirrored a lot of his stuff from 2010. What the heck happened this offseason? He's been mediocre. Even though Liriano won tonight, I thought he looked slopped, and he gave up too many walks. What happened?