Francisco Liriano made his second start for Los Leones de Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. Liriano didn’t do so well – despite four strikeouts he was knocked around and gave up three runs in 2.2 innings, raising his ERA to 8.31. But it’s probably a good thing that he’s playing there at all. It has been pointed out by others that Liriano’s best year came in 2010 after playing winter ball. He thrives when he has more practice in the offseason.
You can actually take that a step further: the Twins thrive when Liriano thrives.
Liriano came up to the Twins in 2005. Like most September call-ups, he was a little overmatched, and he put up a 5.70 ERA in limited duty. At the same time, the Twins limped to an 83-79 finish, nine games worse than the previous year. In 2006, the team got off to a wretched start. On May 18th, they were 17-24, coming off a five game losing streak. Then they put Liriano in the rotation, and voila, they won six of eight, stormed to a 19-7 June record, and ignited a second half streak that took them to the playoffs. Liriano went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA, and the Twins ended up with 96 wins, their most since 1969.
Liriano missed all of 2007 while recovering from Tommy John Surgery, and the Twins felt his absence. Minnesota lacked pitching and flopped with a 79-83 mark in the standings, the first losing season in seven years. 2008 started out on a low note as well. Liriano made the rotation out of Spring Training, but he had an awful start. The lefty went 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA in three April starts. The Twins again mirrored Liriano’s struggles with a subpar 12-14 April record. Liriano went down to the minors but was called up again in the second half, just in time to help the Twins cruise to a season ending tie with the White Sox and a Game 163. He was 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA after the break.
The pattern broke down in 2009, as the Twins managed to make the playoffs despite a 5-13, 5.80 performance by Liriano. But it came back big in 2010. Minnesota had a great year at Target Field with 94 wins. 14 of those came from Liriano, a career high. He also struck out over 200 batters and allowed a miniscule 0.4 homers per nine innings. Both the team and the pitcher had high expectations for 2011, but both were sorely disappointed. Liriano had his second worst season as a pro, and the Twins had their second worst season since moving to Minnesota in 1961.
Clearly the team does well when Liriano does well. Perhaps this is because he is the only power pitcher on a staff full of even-keel, ground ball inducers, and the Twins need him to be their staff leader. As long as the defense is reasonably good, when the ground ball guys are on the mound the Twins will probably win somewhere between 45 and 55% of the time. But they rely on their guys at the top to set the tone and win the tougher games. Since the Twins don’t have a true #1 pitcher, it falls to Liriano to lead the staff.
That’s mostly speculation, and it’s not really easy to quantify, but it seems like a workable theory.
So the task for Liriano in 2012 is simple: just win, and the Twins will win too. Okay, maybe not so simple. But if anyone can do it, Liriano can.