Francisco Liriano: Will the Minnesota Twins Lefty Turn Things Around This Year?

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Francisco Liriano: Will the Minnesota Twins Lefty Turn Things Around This Year?
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Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter last Tuesday. That's good.

In the process of no-hitting the White Sox, Liriano struck out only two batters while walking six. That's bad. Despite enjoying the best season of his career in 2010, "bad" would be quite an understatement in evaluating Liriano's performance this year.

Through six starts, he has four more walks than strikeouts and he's given up over a home run per nine innings. Liriano currently has the fifth-worst WAR among qualified pitchers and among the four pitchers below him, he has the highest xFIP, BB/9 and lowest K/9. His strikeout rate numbers are by far the lowest of his career.

It's easy to point to his 2007 Tommy John surgery as an explanation for his performance, but after last year we know he still has the capability to pitch in the Majors at an elite level.

With that in mind, should we expect Liriano to turn things around this season?

Looking at only 32 innings of work, it's difficult to come up with a definite answer to this question. The season is obviously very young, and there is ample time for Liriano to return to his 2010 form and put together a great year.

However, I wouldn't bet on it.

The first factor I looked at when preparing this piece was fastball velocity. The league's top five pitchers based on velocity from 2005-2010 are Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia.

Obviously, there are a lot of nuances that go into being a great pitcher, but it's tough to argue with the results of having an effective four-seam fastball. In 2006, Liriano was in top form, cruising along toward a Cy Young-caliber season before suffering an injury that led to Tommy John surgery.

That year, he was averaging 94.7 MPH on his fastball and was tied with Beckett for third best in the Majors. In 2009, his first full season after returning from the injury, his average velocity fell to 91.7 as he suffered though the worst performance of his career.

The following year, he returned to post his best season. Unsurprisingly, his fastball velocity was back up to near 94 MPH. This year, his velocity has dipped back down to 92.1. This currently ranks 32nd among all qualified pitchers.

That said, Liriano's best pitch is not his fastball.

In 2006, he threw an extremely effective slider almost 38 percent of the time to the tune of 23 runs above average. In '08 and '09, the pitch seemed to work for him, but not as effectively. In 2010, he brought it back with a vengeance.

Throwing his slider more than 30 percent of the time for the first time since 2006, it was an excellent 1.9 win pitch.

Basically, when his slider is on, it's one of the best pitches in baseball. However, when it's off, it's just another pitch.

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He's throwing his slider nearly 30 percent of the time again this season, but without much success. According to FanGraph's pitch values, his changeup has actually been a better pitch so far. A good fastball countered with a good changeup can certainly be an effective combination, but Liriano needs his out pitch. With his fastball velocity down and his slider not working, the results haven't been pretty.

We've established that Liriano was pacing toward an excellent season in 2006, and that he posted his best numbers in 2010. In both of those years, he was able to start each plate appearance with a strike over 60 percent of the time.

This year, that number is down to 43 percent.

When he was successful, he was also generating swings at over 47 percent of the pitches he threw compared to only 41 percent this season. He's not having any trouble getting batters to swing at stuff he throws inside the strike zone.

However, possibly due to his slider's ineffectiveness, he's done a very poor job of generating swinging strikes at pitches outside of the zone. Batters are swinging and missing at only 22 percent of the pitches Liriano throws off the plate, resulting in much higher walk totals.

As I said before, it's early. Several great pitchers are off to rocky starts, but many of them have fallen victim to a few fluky problems. For example, I mentioned that Liriano currently has the fifth worst WAR among qualified pitchers.

The league's worst WAR belongs to Colby Lewis. He's giving up home runs at a terribly unsustainable rate, as 19 percent of his fly balls are clearing the bases. Because of this, his xFIP shows us that he's been quite a bit better than his ERA, and one can assume his numbers will improve as his HR/FB ratio regresses to normalcy. Colby Lewis will be fine.

However, as you can see, Lirano's numbers are terrible across the board.

Last year, one could make a case for Francisco Liriano as the best pitcher in the American League. His slider was working, he was striking out over a batter per inning, and was the better at keeping balls inside the park than any pitcher in baseball.

It seemed like, after battling through Tommy John surgery and a rough 2009, one of baseball's most promising arms was back. Now, he's pitching at a level nearly identical to his 2009 performance, but with significantly lower strikeout rates.

In February, the Twins avoided arbitration by signing Liriano to a one-year deal. This lead to concerns among the Minnesota fan base that he may be dealt for prospects approaching the trade deadline.

It now seems likely that Liriano may finish the year outside of Minnesota's starting rotation without leaving the organization. 

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