Any time a player's performance deteriorates without any clear explanation, people are going to look for somewhere to pin the blame. In this case, many folks have targeted the coaching staff, for having the gall to suggest in spring training that Liriano could stand to be more efficient with his pitches.
In June, after Liriano had turned in perhaps his strongest start of the year against the Rangers at Target Field, Aaron Gleeman wrote a column that linked Liriano's horrible results in April to the Twins asking him to "pitch to contact" earlier in the spring.
Since that brilliant outing, Liriano has lapsed back into the same funk that plagued him in April and throughout the 2009 season, posting a 5.37 ERA with 31 walks over 55 1/3 innings. This should have put to bed any notion that his early issues were caused by the Twins' tinkering.
Yet, earlier this month, during a dreadful outing in which the lefty coughed up seven runs in Anaheim, Phil Mackey made his own attempt to implicitly blame the Twins' coaches for Liriano's problems, posting the following tweet:
Liriano has obviously been terrible this year. But #Twins' inference that he needed to alter his approach from '10 to '11 was ludicrous.When I asked Mackey to clarify on this "inference," he pointed to his spring training notes, stating that "Liriano discussion centered much around trying to get 'quick outs' and throw 220 innings."
Ah, how irresponsible. Ludicrous, even.
Liriano was awesome last year and no one was a bigger fan of his performance than me. But what's ludicrous is the notion that he had no room for improvement, or that the team deserves to be castigated for bringing those areas to light.
An unwillingness, or inability, to throw the ball in the strike zone early in the count has been a problem for Liriano at different times throughout his career, and was certainly on display during one spring training outing this year when he needed 75 pitches to get through three innings. I believe the team's focus on "pitching to contact" was more a reaction to his erratic tendencies from the moment he showed up (out of shape) to camp than to his 2010 season. It's silly to think that coaches were asking him to make wholesale alterations to his approach after such a dominant campaign.
What's funny is that if Liriano had actually been able to heed the team's advice and throw the damn ball over the plate, he'd likely be having a very good season. His problems are almost 100 percent attributable to an inability to throw strikes. He's among the league leaders in swinging strike percentage and batters haven't been able to do much with his pitches when putting them in play, managing a measly 15.5 percent line drive rate and a sub-average .286 BABIP.
The key issue with blaming Liriano's troubles on the Twins is that he's done the exact opposite of what they asked. He couldn't throw strikes consistently in April and he still can't here in August, as his most recent outing saw him deliver just 53 of 109 pitches in the zone.
I'm as big of a Frankie apologist as you'll find but it's crystal clear to me that he's created his own problems this season. No one can go out there and throw strikes for him. And if a relatively simple request from the coaches in spring training psyched him out so horribly that he's still out of sorts more than five months later, well, that's on him too.
There are plenty of things the Twins can actually responsibly be blamed for in this mess of a season. How about if we stick with those rather than drawing these kinds of strained causal assumptions?