A lot of Twins fans will tell you that in 2010 Francisco Liriano set the MLB world on fire. He pitched 191.2 innings, struck out 201 batters, and matched the lowest BB/9 rate of his career at 2.7. The Liriano Twins fans remembered from 2006 was back, or so they thought. The truth is, that as good as his 2010 season was, Liriano was only 12% better than league average by Baseball-Reference’s ERA+, and only 11% better by FanGraph’s ERA-, which points to a solid season, but not to someone who recaptured the magic of 2006. Liriano had a good season in 2010, I will not argue against that, but his season is inflated in the minds of Twins fans in part because of his strike out numbers, and in part because the strike out numbers of the rest of the Twins’ staff. In 2010, no other Twins pitcher came close to Liriano’s 201 strike outs. The next best pitcher was Scott Baker who threw 148 Ks, and the third and fourth best totals are 117 and 116 from Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey. Compared to those numbers, Liriano was easily the best pitcher on the team, but compared to the rest of the league, Liriano came in 14th in Ks, and 25th compared to other starters in terms of WAR. So it was a good season, but it was not great, and a big part of Liriano’s success in 2010 was tied to his ability (luck?) to limit home runs. Liriano gave up just 9 home runs in 2010, good for just 0.4 HR/9 innings, which is half of his career average of 0.8. Sure, Liriano was able to get ahead of hitters by locating his fast ball, and then entice them to chase his slider, resulting in strike outs and weakly hit fly balls that are not leaving the ball park. Add Target Field into that equation and there is additional suppression of home runs, but being 50% better than his career average? Definitely some luck involved, as pitchers have very little impact over home run rates on fly balls.
The wheels fell of for Liriano in 2011, in part because he could not consistently throw his fast ball for a strike, which forced Liriano to pitch from behind in the count, allowing hitters to lay off his slider. As a result, his walk rate climbed, his strike out rate decreased, and Liriano was throwing a lot of pitches without a lot of success. While he did manage a no-hitter against the White Sox, Liriano’s ERA ballooned over 5 and he threw just 134.1 innings, with a career low strike out rate, and a career high walk rate. What will 2012 look like? Bill James projects Liriano to throw 180 innings, something he’s done just once in his career. Liriano will need to stay healthy, and limit his walks to keep his pitch counts down to throw deeper into games if he is going to reach the 180 inning mark. While James projects Liriano to throw more strike outs and less walks than 2010, he still projects those numbers to be worse than his career average. James does project Liriano’s ERA to come down almost a full run to 4.05, aided in part to a more skilled defense behind him, and a decrease in HR/9 from 2011. A healthy and consistent Liriano will definitely be an essential part of the 2012 Twins if they hope to rebound from a 99 loss season in 2011. I do not expect Liriano to change drastically from his 2011 numbers. His winter ball efforts this past season were inconsistent, and Liriano continued to get in trouble and put runners on, running up his pitch counts, but then escaping with a timely strike out or double play ball. If Liriano can reduce his walk rate, he will be an improved pitcher in 2012, increasing his strike out totals and number of innings pitched. More innings for Liriano means less innings for an unproven bullpen behind him, which should also enable Liriano to take home a couple extra wins. I believe Liriano will be healthy in 2012, pitch at least 175 innings, and throw 167 strike outs, good for 8.6Ks/9. Over the past three years Liriano has given up 44 HRs while averaging just over 150 innings, and I think that somewhere around 15 long balls in 2012 is a good place for Liriano. Reducing his walk rate to around 3.75/9 will result in 73 BBs. Using the Updated Team WAR spreadsheet, Liriano, if he can post a FIP around 4.05, will be worth about 3.6 WAR, just slightly less valuable than he was in 2010.
With Scott Baker and Liriano both healthy in 2012 the Twins will have a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation. If Carl Pavano and Jason Marquis are eating innings and Nick Blackburn, the teams projected 5th starter, performing at the league average the Twins should rebound nicely in 2012.
Previous 2012 Projections can be found here.