After returning to dominating form last season, Francisco Liriano has looked like a different pitcher during the first month of 2011.
His fortunes did not change in yesterday's start against the Rays, where he constantly fell behind hitters and showed that his pitches lacked the same life they did last season.
The most obvious difference between 2010 and 2011 is Liriano's velocity. Last season, Liriano averaged 94.1 mph on his four-seam fastball and 93.5 mph on his two-seamer. So far in 2011, he has averaged 92 mph on his four-seamer and 91.8 mph on the two-seamer.
Liriano's slider also has lost about an inch, in both its horizontal and vertical movement, and it is reflected in lower strikeout rate of 6.85 K/9. Both the loss in velocity and movement has contributed to Liriano recording a fewer amount of swinging strikes in 2011 (10.6 percent) compared to last season (12.4 percent).
Opposing hitters have also dramatically reduced the amount of pitches they have chased, from 34.4 percent in 2010 to 25 percent this season, and making contact with pitches thrown in the strike zone.
Opponents are laying off the sliders and change-ups outside the strike zone. Hitters swung at 40 percent of sliders outside the strike zone last season compared to 27 percent this season.
Liriano's command has been the other great issue plaguing the left-hander in 2011. Liriano threw 64.2 percent of his pitches for a strike, and threw a first pitch strike to 61.7 percent of batters he faced in 2010.
Those numbers have dropped this season. He has thrown 55.6 percent of pitches for strikes, and has only thrown a first pitch strike to 45.7 percent of opposing hitters.
There are some encouraging signs for Liriano. His change-up has become a better swing and miss pitch, and his ERA of 9.13 has been inflated by a 54.5 percent strand rate. Liriano's ground ball rate has not changed from last season, and his line drive rate is down eight percent.
The increase in home run to fly ball ratio has hurt Liriano, and I don't envision that number remaining at 14.5 percent. (He has only made two out of his five starts at Target Field, and in both of those starts he did not allow a home run.)
Liriano can still turn this season around if he can get his command under control. His slider may not have the same movement and his velocity is down, but he still has two above average off-speed pitches and he induces a lot of ground balls.
Establishing first pitch strikes should get more hitters to swing at pitches outside of the zone. The command is the key, and the Twins need Liriano to regain it in order to win the AL Central.
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