The Twins fan in me is pretty sad today. The 2-4 roadtrip was disappointing and it was sad on a human level to see Tsuyoshi Nishioka go down with the broken leg one day before he would have made his Target Field debut for the Twins (his parents flew in from Japan to see the game). On the road-trip, nothing seemed to go right for the Twins, they got down early in games, their defense was lacking, and the offense didn’t offer much to help in the way of runs. Every starter not named Nick Blackburn gave up at least 4 runs, and in three of the first 6 games the Twins have played so far, the starter gave up runs in the very 1st inning. Of the starters, I’m most curious about Francisco Liriano, particularly because throughout the Spring and now the first week of the regular season, he has not looked like the dominating force we saw for most of last season. His command in general has been spotty, he can’t seem to get a good handle on his slider, and his velocity on his fastball is down. I’ve decided I want to take a little closer look at his first two starts to see if I can find reason to explain his early struggles. The sample-size alarm is going off, and I know it’s very early in the season, but it’s worth a look.
What made Liriano effective in 2006 and 2010 was his ability to command his fastball. When he is able to do that, his slider becomes a lethal weapon. In starts where Liriano struggles, it is typically because he cannot locate his fastball, which inevitably leads to him relying more on his slider, which is rendered less effective when hitters can wait for a) a mistake up in the zone or b) a walk. In his first start against the Blue Jays, he walked 5 batters and his Groundball to Flyball (GB/FB) ratio was 5:1. The result was 4 earned runs in just over 4 innings including two homeruns. In his start against the Yankees, his command was a little better, but again he walked 3 and his GB/FB ratio was 1:1.
The GB/FB ratio is important to note because over the course of his career, Liriano is decidedly a groundball pitcher with a ratio of about 1.5 groundballs for every flyball. This is another indicator of command because when Liriano is “going good,” he is keeping his fastball down, which leads to groundballs and he is also inducing weak contact with his slider which also typically leads to groundballs. When you see him struggling with his command, he gets the ball up and you see more flyballs and, naturally, more homeruns. Now, let’s take a look at pitch speed.
Liriano’s pitch velocity is probably the best indication we have that he’s not at the top of his game. As you can see, his fastball velocity (FA-Vel) more closely resembles 2008 and 2009 rather than 2010 (velocity was improved in yesterday’s game). His two-seam fastball velocity (FT-Vel) is not to far off last year’s levels, but he hasn’t been throwing that pitch with as much regularity as he did last year, instead relying more heavily on his slider which has struggled controlling.
In my mind, the biggest question going forward is, “can Liriano turn things around?” I believe the answer is “yes,” and I have a couple of reasons why. Last year, Liriano came into the season having pitched in the Dominican Winter league and all through Spring Training. That isn’t all that significant except for the fact that Liriano had thrown a lot more pitches coming into the regular season and was, more or less, at the top of his game right out of the gate. This was also a double-edged sword of sorts because towards the end of last season Liriano seemed to wear down (4.59 ERA in Sept/Oct). The second reason I think Liriano can turn things around is because even over the two starts he’s had this season, he’s improved, both in velocity and location, a good sign that he is simply behind the curve and that the problem is not something more serious like a shoulder or arm issue.
If Liriano has a couple of dominating starts over the next few weeks, all of this early-season angst will likely be forgotten and all of us die-hards will be breathing a huge sigh of relief. If the problems continue, however, the Twins will have a serious problem on their hands as their starting rotation will lack an ace, significantly impacting their ability to compete in the division this season. This is me with my fingers crossed.