Friday, April 16, 2010

Control of fastball key to Liriano's success

That’s more like it.

For most of the winter and spring, we have been teased by this promise of Francisco Liriano 2.0. While in winter ball in the Dominican, he was blowing hitters away and commanding the strike zone with authority. He continued this output in the spring, working 20 almost flawless innings in the Grapefruit League yielding just five walks. Like the Twins’ version of Guns N Roses, it began to feel like Liriano’s anticipated 2010 season was the equivalent of the band’s much hyped album Chinese Democracy. We’ve been waiting patiently for this release and have been feed information that only led us to believe it was going to be EPIC.

And then Liriano made his 2010 debut against the White Sox and it started to feel exactly like Chinese Democracy: propagated and overhyped crap.

Similar to 2009, Liriano struggled to place his fastball within the strike zone despite having velocity closer to his 2006 levels. He especially avoided the right-handed contingent of the White Sox lineup with his heater. This was no small surprise as last year righties feasted upon Liriano’s smoke, hitting .365/.468/.698 (AVG/OBP/SLG) while the rest of America’s pitchers had their fastballs hit at a significantly lower .298/.371/.469 clip. Evidently, in his first start of the year, this was probably at the forefront of his mind as he navigated his way through his first major league lineup since 2009. As such, he kept his fastball off the plate and wound up walking five righties (four of the five on fastballs). Without any control over his fastball to set up his inhumane slider, Liriano appeared ready to dither away in yet another season mired in high walk rates.

Pundits and coaches spoke of Liriano’s need to trust his stuff and the Twins potential ace did just that at Target Field. In his second start of the season against a formidable Boston lineup, Liriano proved that he could intertwine both his recharged velocity and placement in the strike zone, validating the offseason reports we heard so much about. He consumed the strike zone with his fastball, throwing it for a strike 66% of the time to righties, much better than his 56% rate against the White Sox righties.

As the game progressed, so too did his confidence in his fastball. In fact, after favoring his off-speed offerings in Chicago, Liriano stuck with the hard stuff on Thursday to right-handed batters:

Liriano’s Pitch Selection vs RHB:
At White Sox (4/9/10)
Vs Red Sox (4/15/10)
(via Inside Edge)
With a core that included heavy-hitting right-handed bats in Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Beltre, Liriano would have had ample reason to shy away from his fastball. Instead, it was his fastball that would be the executioner of the trio in their second and third time through the order. In the third inning, Liriano coaxed fly outs off the bats of Martinez and Youkilis then retired Beltre on a grounder to open the fourth, preserving the Twins one-run lead. Several innings later and a four-run buffer at his disposal, Liriano struck out Martinez on the heat then proceeded to get Youkilis to bounce into a fielder’s choice and extracted a grounder out of Beltre - both on fastballs.

Using a rejuvenated fastball effectively against one of baseball’s offensive juggernauts, particularly to their right-handed swingers, Liriano demonstrated just how potent his pitching can be.