Monday, June 13, 2011

The Long Road

"Stuff" is one of my favorite baseball terms. On the surface it seems so rudimentary, yet it's used by scribes, players, coaches, scouts and fans alike. There really is no synonym. While the word in its general usage is as ambiguous as they come, its usage in baseball is acutely specific. You know what it is when you see it. Stuff is what makes the great pitchers great.

Francisco Liriano is one of those hurlers who has always been gifted with incredible stuff. When he first unleashed it on the major leagues back in 2006, hitters were blown away. Despite being just 22, Liriano struck out 144 batters while allowing only 89 hits in 121 innings. It was one of the most dominating rookie performances in memory.

The electricity of Liriano's arm has never been in question, only his ability to keep it running and control its current.

He short-circuited late in that sensational 2006 campaign, with a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery. We all know how many tribulations have been encountered on the long road back, but through it all Liriano's stuff endured; he continued to throw the ball past hitters even at times when his body ached and his control disappeared (most notably in a 2009 campaign where he went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA but still managed 122 whiffs in 136 innings).

Last season, things finally came together for Liriano, for the first time since his injury. He displayed masterful command of the strike zone, averaging only 2.7 walks per nine innings, and his stuff was just about as good as ever. At age 27, he seemed prepared to resume the path he'd embarked upon when he first rose to the majors back in 2006, which was why I strongly advocated for a contract extension during the offseason.

Of course, I didn't anticipate that Liriano would forget how to throw strikes over the offseason. From the moment he showed up to camp this year, he was a mess, racking up huge pitch counts while struggling to find the zone with even half his offerings. Over his first seven starts this year (including the no-hitter), Liriano walked 27 batters in 35 2/3 innings while throwing just 55 percent of his pitches for strikes.

Ever since the no-hitter, though, Liriano has been pitching with increased confidence, and yesterday at Target Field he appeared to turn a corner. Finally, he looked every bit as dominant as he did when at his best last year, or even in 2006. Facing off against a dangerous Texas lineup, the southpaw attacked the zone with authority, making almost every hitter he faced look hopelessly overmatched.

There was no luck involved with Liriano's no-hit bid, which was broken up by an Adrian Beltre single in the eighth. All afternoon, the Rangers flailed hopelessly at Liriano's darting fastballs and devastating sliders. Through the first seven innings, seemingly every Texas at-bat ended with a strikeout or a weakly tapped grounder.

In two starts since returning from the disabled list, the left-hander has now allowed two runs (one earned), five hits and three walks in 13 innings while striking out 16. It took a while, but finally he seems to be getting back on track.

The same can be said for the Twins, who have now won nine of their last 11, trimming their deficit in the AL Central to single digits for the first time since early May.

With a bevy of key players set to come off the disabled list this week, interleague play (which they've traditionally dominated) approaching, and plenty of home games on the docket, the Twins have to be feeling a whole lot better about their chances than they they did just a couple short weeks ago.

With that said, they've still got a long way to go. In spite of their impressive hot streak, they still have the fewest wins of any AL team, and must pass four clubs to get to the top of the division. Even with the rotation showing significant improvement and the lineup incrementally returning to full strength, that will be a tall task for a team with ingrained flaws.

One thing is for sure, though: their odds will be much, much better if Liriano can keep throwing the ball like he did at Target Field yesterday. Suddenly, this team has an ace again.

Good stuff.

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A&E Home Entertainment has kindly provided three copies of The Minnesota Twins Vintage World Series Films DVD to give out to readers of the blog. If you're interested, drop me a line at nels2807@gmail.com by 5 pm on Monday with your name in the subject line and I'll include you in a drawing. Great gift for pops with Father's Day approaching.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's working out great. If Liriano keeps this up for another month without falling apart the Twins can get a real good return for him. If the Twins do come back and have a chance at the Div hopefully he can hold up a little longer and they can trade him in the offseason. He has one year left after this season and I would never give this guy a multi-year contract. Terrible Mechanics, poor work ethic and a total lack of consistency. I'm betting quite a few teams will overlook that though. Come on Boston keep winning, make the Yanks desperate.

Sean

SadPanda said...

It is fairly remarkable how quickly things have changed. Before play on June 2nd we were 15 1/2 games out of first place and now on June 13th we are only 9 out. Making up 6 1/2 games in the standing while only playing 11 games is amazing.

The next step is to pass the Royals and get out of last place in the central.

Dan Cook said...

I hope you're right, Nick, and Liriano is truly "back".

I was at the game yesterday, and that's as well-pitched a game as I've ever seen in person.

But I'm still cautious. We've seen hot streaks from Liriano before, and they're almost always followed by him losing "it" for weeks at a time.

I hope I'm wrong, but I'm not buying-in fully just yet.

Anonymous said...

Sean, I was thinking the exact same thing. If a guy doesn't fit onto your long term plans, the time to sell is when his value is high. If you could trade Liriano to the Yanks for one of their catcher studs + a top pitching prospect or two, I think that would be really hard to pass up. I'm glad they're playing better and I think they now could be a .500 team, but it's hard to see them going beyond that.
Dave

Jaden said...

We've got to do something about our catching situation, but let's ride this thing out. I'd hate to kill a good thing and eliminate any chance of us making the all-time greatest comeback to win a division EVER. Let's enjoy the ride, see how it plays out by the last week of July. If he keeps it up, I wouldn't mind a trade for an everyday player(catcher). That's way better than a guy that will work every 5th day. That being said, he is our only ace (although Scott Baker looked lights-out on Saturday).
Just think of how our rotation would look if we got Slowey back into it, with him in top form. Put Duensing back into bullpen to beef that up, and we're looking pretty good. A bullpen with Duensing, Perkins, Mijares is MUCH better than what we're dealing with now. It gives me alot more hope to climb back into the race. Now, if only we can fix that closer situation...

Anonymous said...

i was wondering if anyone else who watched Liriano's outstanding performance on sunday picked up that he has altered his delivery just a little, but it seems to have done a whole lot. when he kicks his leg up now, he twists his hips back and has a slight pause at his balance point, powers up and then throws his whole body at the plate with his violent delivery.
but it's the power up and balance i noticed that looked the same every time and seems to have him very comfortable and able to control his pitches.
you will never get someone as exciting or close to liriano in a trade.. though if his value keeps going up maybe you can fill a spot that is lacking with an average major league player. but liriano's up side is still about as high as a pitcher can get, a couple mariner's come to mind in the same sentence, as well as 2 phillie's, but not 4.

Matt said...

He looked great yesterday, good for him. I hope he continues to do well.
However, I don't think he should be part of the Twins long term plans. Teams in a pennant race will part with valuable assets to aquire a LH starter that strikes guys out. Not Cliff Lee trade calibur, but you never know...

cy1time said...

There's a lot more to being an ace than good stuff. An ace has to eat some innings and save the bullpen, not go five innings or less in over half his starts. It kills the bullpen and hurts the team. An ace has to win games, not have his team go 4-7 in his starts. An ace does it start after start, month after month, not every now and then.

While he may have the "stuff" of an ace, Liriano needs to be more consistent before I'll consider him an ace. I hope that I'm wrong and he's figured it out and we can get a "ace's" haul in a trade. Until then, he's an adequate starter with high upside stuff. What is more likely in his next start, 5BB and 4ER in 5IP or <3ER in 7IP? Even against the Padres, it's probably a toss up.

TT said...

Liriano had a good game. But he isn't the key to the Twins success. He can only start one game in five. And he really needs to do it consistently for more than three weeks at a time.

We can thank Cleveland for our rapid assent in a short period. But with Detroit now in a virtual tie with Cleveland, we now trail two teams by nine games instead of only one. And Detroit is much less likely to have a collapse like Cleveland has. Still, if they can knock a game a week off those leads, they will be contenders by the end of July.

Mike said...

@TT- I think it's tough to say that Detroit, the "Kings of Collapse," are less likely to collapse than Cleveland. I don't know if they've ever closed out a regular season, rather than simply limped in...

Ross said...

I wrote similarly about Liriano over at Charged.fm, check it out: http://www.charged.fm/blog/post/234/the-many-faces-of-francisco-liriano