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.