In 2006, a flame-throwing rookie took the baseball world by storm.
Ranked the sixth-best prospect in the game on Baseball America's preseason list, he surpassed even the wildest expectations people had for him, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA (2.55 FIP, 2.35 xFIP) and earned 4.1 WAR in 121 innings.
Then disaster struck.
Elbow pain limited Liriano to just two starts after July 28 and he underwent Tommy John surgery in November.
He missed the entire 2007 season, and wasn't quite himself for two years afterwards. He went 11-17 with a 5.12 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in 212 2/3 innings from 2008-9.
His breakout rookie season seemed like a fluke, and Liriano had gained a reputation as inconsistent and injury-prone.
But last winter something changed, and Liriano rediscovered his lost talent. In 37 innings of work in the Dominican League, he posted a 0.49 ERA. More importantly, he showed the overpowering stuff (10.9 K/9) he had lost since his debut season while bringing his walks under control (1.7 BB/9).
The stage was set for a monster year, and Liriano did not disappoint.
In 31 starts—2010 was the first time he'd managed more than 25—he went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA. In 191 2/3 innings, he racked up 201 strikeouts while allowing only 58 walks.
He earned 6.0 WAR for a Twins team that won its division by six games. In other words, Minnesota probably wouldn't have made the playoffs without Liriano.
Liriano simply dominated opposing hitters. His 9.4 K/9 rate was second in the league, behind only Jon Lester. Batters chased his out-of-zone pitches at a 34.4 percent clip—good for fourth in baseball—and his 12.4 percent swinging-strike rate was the best in the game.
PitchFx had his fastball averaging 94.2 mph, and no pitcher did more damage with his slider than Liriano (FanGraphs' pitch weights had him at 19.0 wSL).
And yet, Liriano was actually extremely unlucky. His .331 BABIP was the second-highest in baseball. Yes, groundball pitchers like Liriano tend to have higher hit rates than their fly ball-inducing counterparts, but his xBABIP was exactly .300.
What might Liriano's season have looked like with neutral luck? His 2.66 FIP put him second in the league, behind only rightful Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. The 96-point difference between his FIP and ERA marks him as the unluckiest pitcher in the AL.
Liriano's 2.93 tERA puts him fourth in the Junior Circuit, way ahead of Cy Young candidates David Price (3.27), CC Sabathia (3.44) and Clay Buchholz (3.92).
XFIP was the least generous of the ERA estimators, putting Liriano at 3.06. And yet, that was good enough to beat every other qualified pitcher in baseball not named Roy Halladay.
What does this mean for Liriano's 2011 season? Assuming his peripherals hold up, we could very well be looking at the best pitcher in baseball.
As his BABIP falls, his WHIP will follow. Fewer hits means a higher strand rate (Liriano's 73.1 LOB percentage last year looks fine, but one would expect a pitcher of his caliber post an above-average mark), and fewer base-runners scoring at a lower rate will do wonders for his ERA.
If he can keep his HR/FB rate down—and a pitcher of his caliber shouldn't have too much trouble controlling the long ball at Target Field—there's no reason his ERA wouldn't regress towards his 2.66 FIP.
Plus, fewer base-runners means fewer hitters. That will make his innings go by faster, allowing him to pitch deeper into games. He averaged less than 6.1 innings a start in 2010 and didn't throw a single complete game. Fewer runs and more innings mean more wins.
The scary part? It seems like Liriano has been around forever, but in fact he is only 27 years old.
Given his age, he could conceivably get even better this year. Twenty wins, an ERA around 2.00 and more than 200 innings are well within the realm of possibility for Liriano.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to expect a season that incredible from anyone outside a video game console. Moreover, while Liriano seems perfectly healthy now, there's always a shadow of doubt for pitchers with his kind of injury history.
And while regression to his luck-neutral statistics is the most likely outcome, it's no guarantee. If you roll two dice, you're always most likely to get a seven, but that doesn't mean you'll never roll snake eyes.
Earlier this winter, I projected Liriano to go 16-8 with a 2.92 ERA, backed up by 211 strikeouts and 63 walks in 204 IP, which would clearly make him one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Could he beat my prediction? Absolutely.
He may have the highest upside of any starter in the game, and he could go on to have a truly historic season.
Don't count on Liriano's stats matching up with his luck-neutral numbers from last season, but the sky is the limit when he takes the mound in 2011.
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