The Twins have dealt with their fair share of uneven performances from the starting rotation this year. It's safe to say that, outside of Scott Baker, no pitcher has been as consistent as they'd like.
For the most part, that's the nature of the beast. When Nick Blackburn or Brian Duensing turns in an ugly start, it's tough to get too worked up, because most people understand that they're contact pitchers who invariably are going to have stretches where their pitches flatten out or their luck catches up with them.
Francisco Liriano's struggles have been more inexplicable and far more aggravating. Here we have a 27-year-old with an electric arm coming off a breakout season who has basically managed to undo all the positive progress he'd made since returning from Tommy John surgery four years ago.
In what figured to be the defining season of his career, Liriano showed up to spring training with a sore shoulder -- allegedly the result of a failure to keep up with his offseason workout regimen -- and since then the left-hander's campaign has been a hideous mess, spotted with random spectacular highlights.
One of the biggest reasons that I projected a monster year for Liriano was that he suffered from horrible batted ball luck in 2010, which caused his superficial core numbers to underplay his truly dominant performance. If he could simply repeat what he did last year with neutral luck, I pegged him to rank as one of the league's finest starters.
Sure enough, Liriano's BABIP has dropped from .335 in '10 to .280 in '11, and as a result he's averaging only 7.9 hits allowed per nine innings -- his lowest rate since the surgery. Unfortunately, he has more than offset this by completely losing his ability to throw the ball over the plate.
Last year, Liriano threw 64 percent of his pitches for strikes and averaged 2.7 walks per nine innings. He issued more than three free passes in a start only four times all season.
This year, he's throwing only 57 percent of his pitches for strikes and is averaging 5 BB/9IP, which is the worst rate of his career (worse even than his disastrous 2009). He's issued four or more walks in eight starts, including three of his past four.
If he were simply throwing garbage and getting crushed, Liriano's laborious outings would be easier to accept. But what's truly infuriating is that he's actually been pretty damned effective outside of the control problems. He's hitting the mid-90s with his fastball and his slider is as nasty as ever. His swinging strike percentage of 11.9 ranks second in all of baseball. Opponents are hitting line drives only 15.7 percent of the time against him, a career low that helps explain the drop in BABIP.
When Liriano is on, he's almost unbeatable, and we've seen that on a few all-too-rare occasions this year. For the most part, though, he's been completely out of sorts, often seeming to have no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hand.
The southpaw's self-inflicted wounds are beyond frustrating to watch, and they leave the Twins in a difficult situation going forward. Do they continue to try and help him work through these recurring mental blocks -- a game they've been playing for far too long -- or do they cut bait and let him try to figure things out elsewhere, knowing full well that if he can recapture the command he had a year ago he could easily become one of the most dominant pitchers in the league?
I'm interested to hear what the masses think. I've always been a huge supporter of Liriano, but what I'm coming to realize is that I'm in love with the left arm a lot more than the rest of the package. I'd vote for hanging onto him through next year at least, if only because he remains the organization's sole chance at a true ace in the near future, but at this point I can only shake my head while watching him waste his talent and help crush the Twins' 2011 chances.