Monday, August 15, 2011

The Burden of Blame

It goes without saying that Francisco Liriano has had a disappointing season. His regression from top-of-the-rotation performer to erratic, inconsistent mechanical mess has been a key ingredient in the Twins' remarkable drop-off from a year ago.

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?


Jack Steal said...


Just watch what happens when Francisco Liriano leaves the Twins. I bet he wins a Cy Young award. This coaching staff has every player so screwed up and Liriano is at the top of the list. You don't a tell a potential ace to "Pitch to contact." The notion is just crazy. He is a strikeout pitcher let him go out and do his thing. Sometimes he will be unbelieveable and other times he will look terrible. Telling Liriano this could be compared to telling Ben Revere to slow down on the base paths. I have not layed much blame on manager Ron Gardenhire this year because GM Bill Smith never gave him much of a chance with a aweful off-season. However, pitching coach Rick Anderson, hitting coach Joe Vavra, bench coach Scott Ulger, and new 3rd base coach Steve Liddle all need to be sent packing.

Nick N. said...

You don't a tell a potential ace to "Pitch to contact." The notion is just crazy. He is a strikeout pitcher let him go out and do his thing.

He's been doing his thing. How's that been working out?

Matt said...

A "potential ace" (your words, NOT mine) is...
Sometimes he will be unbelieveable and other times he will look terrible.
Maybe our definitions differ, but a guy you're calling an "ace" will never "look terrible." Sure, there will be starts where the best stuff isn't there, but a top of the rotation guy should always give your team a chance to win the game and battle through starts where the stuff isn't there.

And please, a guy with Liriano's stuff should be a strike throwing machine. Nobody is successful consistently behind in the count. All they asked him was to throw it over, and he can't do it. The next team will ask him to throw it over, too.

Jim H said...

Occasionally, there are guys with so much talent like Liriano, that they can get to the majors without ever having learned how to really pitch. Liriano never had to focus on his mechanics or how to set up hitters, or hold runners on or much of anything that had to do with pitching. He would just throw an upper 90's fastball until he got 2 strikes, then throw a plus 90's slider. If he got in trouble, he would just throw the slider more often.

Clearly that approach led him to TJ surgery, one of the reasons the Twins have tried to "change" him. It has to be difficult learning how to pitch at the major league level. It is also true, that if he ever does learn how to pitch, he may win Cy Young's. I think it is silly to "blame" the Twins for trying to turn him into a pitcher.

Still, it is probably understandable for Liriano to want to go back to the things that have worked for him in the past. I doubt if the things he did in the past, will work for him in the future. I suspect that he won't be a starting pitcher in the majors very much longer if he doesn't learn how to pitch.

Jack Steal said...


"He's been doing his thing. How's that been working out."

Seems to me it was working out pretty well this year until the coaching staff messed his head up with all that nonsense. In fact you were so impressed you wanted him inked to a 3-year $30 million deal in the winter. That's all you could talk about and now it seemed to slip your mind. All the problems started when the coaching staff tried to change the pitcher he is. Occasionally wild but with such electric, deceptive stuff hitters chase bad pitches out of the strike zone. When your told to throw the ball right down the middle it's going to get hit. See Pavano, Slowey, Duensing, Blackburn for more on that.

Is it really that big of a deal when he walks 2-3 hitters a game and gets out of a jam. When you walk 6-7 hitters than there is a problem. Liriano is not the only pitcher on the staff that has struggled to throw strikes this season. This tell me there is a internal problem. However, you blame the player instead of the most obvious choice the coaches who continue to mess his mind up. Ask Danny Valencia about that?

Jack Steal said...

Hey Matt,

So your telling me ace pitchers like Verlander and Sabithia (just gave up 5 HRs in one game) never have real bad games. Not sure what you smoking but it must be really good stuff.

Anonymous said...

"In fact you were so impressed you wanted him inked to a 3-year $30 million deal in the winter."

Jack, you were so impressed with Liriano going into the 2010 season that you wanted him pumping gas at the super america. You probably shouldn't use the hindsight card, buddy.

USAFChief said...

I still think the talent is there with Liriano. IMO, he represents the Twins best chance of having a top-of-the-line starter for 2012, and probably beyond. For that reason, I'd use his bad 2011 to ink him to a reasonable 3 yr deal over the winter. I don't see any other way for the Twins to improve their rotation for 2012. The FA crop is weak, and they don't have the pieces to trade for top starter(s).

I don't know why Liriano has terrible command this year. Could be he wasn't healthy/ready coming in to spring training. Could be the Twins coaching staff. Maybe he's just mentally weak. Who really knows? Could be none of the above.

But he's been a very good pitcher as recently as last year, he's still got good stuff, and he's shown flashes this year. If you sign him, and he tanks, somebody will take him off your hands based on potential alone. If he does come back next year pitching tough (and a little better command would be pretty much all it would take) you've got a very good starter signed to a reasonable deal.

Investing in a Liriano makes sense to me, much more than investing in a Carl Pavano. I wouldn't have blamed Bill Smith if he signed Liriano last winter, I hope he does this winter.

Matt said...

It is good stuff!
Sure, pitchers have bad outings. But to say "sometimes terrible" implies that you'll take a bad start out of four or five or what ever. "Aces" have a couple of terrible starts every year, not every month.
In Santana's hey day, he'd have a couple of bad starts here and there, yet still pitch well enough to win some of them. You every see Liriano do that? Not often...

He's no "ace" and never will be unless someone reign in those terrible mechanics and get's him somewhat consistent.

Drew Madison said...

"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."

Those stats are actually quite aggravating regarding Liriano. It suggests that something called "potential" is still there, even after all the self-inflicted wounds are accounted for. Those stats suggest that the Twins just might bring him back for 1 year, hoping that he'll put it all together before going into free agency.

Liriano is fools gold however. He's sexy enough to look good in a certain light, but when you get up close, you realize he's just blah.
Liriano's time as a ace has come and gone. He'll never be what he looked like for 2 months (apparently the most mouth-watering 2 months in the history of pitching)because I think people who believe he "can" be an ace still look towards that even more than last year. 2006 was the mirage, people, not this year.

Liriano was not an ace in 2010. He was a very good pitcher whoose numbers looked better than the process he took to get those numbers. His control was better, but he still ran up too many high pitch counts costing him innings and putting pressure on the pen, and I'll never forget him blowing the 3-run lead against the Yanks in Game 1. Aces don't do that.

I'm just about done with Liriano. Much like Delmon Young, he'll always promise, but never quite deliver. Sometimes, players are what they are. Liriano is a head case who isn't worth it anymore. The Twins need to move him and cut their losses. He might rebound in a similar fashion to Kyle Lohse if he finds the right place (and pitching coach), but he'll never be a Cy Young award winner.

Strikeout pitchers are wonderful, until they can't throw the ball over the plate consistently, not if they psych themselves out over who the opposition is, and if they can't calm their emotions on the mound. There's a word for pitchers like that...bum.

Harold Weisberg said...

Liriano doesn't have the mental make up to be an ace pool player much less pitcher. The league is full of pitchers who dont have perfect mechanics and throw more strikes than liriano. Lets not forget that his velo is down this year too. I haven't checked it at fangraphs but the fox radar has him slower than last season. It has nothing to do with the coaches other than maybe they raised the expectations on him and he cant handle it. BTW, Macky also made shirts that said "its happening" if that tells you anything. Wait a sec, that was probably coaching too.

MN said...

"He'll never be what he looked like for 2 months (apparently the most mouth-watering 2 months in the history of pitching)because I think people who believe he "can" be an ace still look towards that even more than last year. 2006 was the mirage, people, not this year."

Were you not there? He looked like the second coming of Santana when we still had Santana. That year, those together they seemed INVINCIBLE. Actually I wonder if we had kept Santana to mentor Liriano if he would have developed better.

Zach said...

Please, stop saying "pitch to contact." No reasonable person thinks a pitcher should throw the ball down the middle and hope (which would actually probably equate to at least #4 starter-type numbers). The Halladays and the Lees of the world don't pitch to contact, they are consistently around the plate with all of their pitches so hitters can't can't sit on something specific.

This is my biggest frustration with Lariano. When he can't throw his fastball, his slider and changeup become predictable (especially the latter, which he can really only use as an out pitch, not a strike pitch). And, he doesn't adjust mid stream. Watch Halladay pitch. When his fastball is just not there, he will throw a little cutter and find his rhythm. Santana used to do the same. When he would be missing with his fastball he would change it by throwing a 2-seamer.

This drives nuts about Liriano. He has 2 1/2 pitches, and when one isn't working he flies all over the place trying to throw 97 mph fastballs.

He's at best a #3...and his time is waning. Maybe with age, as his velocity starts to taper (which it already has apparently) he can learn how to pitch and not throw. Cliff Lee never really ventures into the mid-90s, nor does Kershaw. But, they are pitchers and they know how to be near the plate without being directly over it.

The Eclectic Reader said...

Because the staff is filled with mediocracy - three guys with the stuff to be decent number 5's, and one guy with good number 4 stuff we annoint the only #3 as an Ace. He isn't. There are many pitchers who come on with the great promise - think Mr Erickson and his 20 game season, but they do not have the mental capacity to harness their physical ability. The Twins are always shy on Aces and annoint good pitchers like Brad Radtke to be number 1's. For many the pressure is too much. Drop the Ace tag and much Frankie down in the rotation.

jimbo92107 said...

What I have noticed about Liriano is that he has changed his delivery three times since coming back from TJ.

In 2009, he was accurate, but he was tipping his pitches horribly. I was able to predict his pitch type and location about 80 percent of the time by how he positioned his front shoulder before the delivery.

In 2010, he stopped tipping his pitches and had a great year by controlling the amount of pirouette on his follow through.

In 2011, his control of follow through degenerated into inconsistency. This has translated into erratic control of the strike zone.

Thing is, at any time Liriano could find his control again like 2010 and dominate. Whether that happens with the Twins or some other team, Liriano still has potential Cy Young stuff.

Anonymous said...

Why did you feel the need to state multiple times that there were no bigger fans of 2010 liriano that you? Pandering for credibility?

There was a lot of unsubstantiated speculation in this blog. Doesnt a dramatic decrease in fastball velocity and command point more towards an injury that that some sort of mental block. Why are we still on the twins wanting him to pitch to contact still (pitch to contact is bad baseball btw)?