Friday, March 25, 2011

Unlucky Liriano?

If you had tuned in to Fox Sports North on Wednesday night, you were treated to a supernova-like outing from left-hander Francisco Liriano. The Twins starter blew through the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup, racking up a remarkable nine strikeouts, but managed to only last three innings as he burned out bright and quick.

I realize that striking out this bunch of Orioles is about as easy as getting accepted to St. Cloud State. For instance, the Birds’ sixth hitter, Mark Reynolds, has struck out in almost 40% of his plate appearances dating back to 2008. Likewise, Derrek Lee and Adam Jones both have k-rates above 20% in that same period of time. Ditto for outfielder Nolan Reimold. Vlad Guerrero – while not much of a strikeout candidate – swings at everything not tied down. Mix in a weak hitting Cesaer Izturis and back-up catcher Craig Tatum and Liriano’s ownership of this lineup, as impressive as nine outs all on strikeouts were, should not come at a complete surprise.

Had this been a game against a more historically patient team like the Yankees or Red Sox, Liriano may not have lasted even the full three innings. His fastball was constantly up in the zone and was frequently bailed out by his secondary offerings that hitters flailed at. His slider was solid while the velocity differential likely aided in keeping his changeup from being crunched as it routinely came in belt high. Nevertheless, because of the errant command, he continually found himself throwing four or more pitches per plate appearance, burning through more bullets than a Brian De Palma movie.

Not surprising, both the coaching staff and Liriano sounded less than satisfied by the gaudy strikeout totals. Said manager Ron Gardenhire on his 76-pitch performance:
"It was a little bit out there. But he got his work in and got to 70-plus pitches to build his arm strength up. But we were just hoping he'd get to five or six innings, not three. There were a lot of punchouts, but I'm sure Frankie was a little bit disappointed by the way he threw the ball tonight."
Liriano’s comments echoed his manager’s sentiments:
"I need to go deeper in the game and not try to strike everybody out. I wasn't really happy with how I pitched tonight."
There’s the rub for Liriano. In order to reduce the amount of strikeouts to lower his overall pitch count, he has to allow the hitters to put the ball in play more frequently. Of course, you will have to excuse him for not putting 100% of his faith in his defense to convert the out based on their track record in 2010.

Aside from Adam Jones’s at bat in the third inning in which he tried to put a hole in the sun with one of Liriano’s fastballs (not a bad location down-and-away), the Orioles managed to test the Twins defense just twice the rest of his outing. In the first inning, Jones fought off a pitch and gorked it on the other side of shortstop Alexi Casilla and in front of the suddenly beefy Delmon Young. One batter later, Guerrero bled another pitch through the infield between short and third.

Two weakly batted balls, two hits.

To me, this epitomized last year’s season for Liriano. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but when it came to help from his defense, he was one of the most unlucky pitchers in the game. Aside from Tampa Bay’s James Shields, Liriano was the runner-up for recipient of the Least Fortunate Pitcher Award, posting the second-highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Essentially, despite wielding some dominating stuff – leading baseball in swinging strikes, posting below average line drive rates, walk rates and allowing just nine home runs – Liriano finished the year with having the second fewest amount of balls in play converted to outs behind him.

What it amounted to was a death by paper cuts. Death, in terms of his pitch count anyways.

Normally I come to the table bringing statistical analysis or other such evidence to back-up the majority of claims I make here. This time, I’m making a purely speculative statement. It seems to me that based upon my recollection of the hits Liriano’s allowed last year many of those were similar to Jones and Guerrero’s singles on Wednesday night. Again, nothing too dangerous: a simple bouncer past an outstretched infielder or a blooper that fell in front of a charging outfielder.

In the end, those of us that are sabermetrically inclined tend to attribute that to bad luck. But what if those results are more than just bad luck? What if there is a bigger root cause that we’re not able to measure at this point?

As we all know Liriano is a strikeout-oriented pitcher. Roughly a quarter of all of his match-ups have ended with the hitter grabbing some pine. I am certain his fielders are acutely aware of this fact too, possibly making them wonder just want they are doing out there and who is that cute girl three rows above the dugout? Perhaps lulled into a less attentive state by anticipating Liriano to single-handedly dismantle the opposing lineups, his fielders do not get the same jump as they would with someone like Nick Blackburn on the mound who they know a hitter is going to put a ball in to play (for better or worse). Suddenly, with Liriano on the mound, those borderline bouncers and dying quails are a step or two out of reach as the fielders are not nearly as vigilant as they otherwise would be with the high-contact pitchers out there.

Yes, you could try blowing this entire theory out of the water but simply invoking someone like the Tigers’ Justin Verlander. Verlander, who averages 4.03 pitches per plate appearance (more than Liriano), exhibits a lot of the same qualities as Liriano but managed to produce a significantly lower .283 BABIP. Why, you would then ask, would a pitcher who seems to labor more through each match-up receive better defense? To that point, I have no real answer. It could have something to do with the makeup of their respective rotations. Detroit’s brimming with pitchers who tend to amass large pitch counts whereas the Twins boast pitchers who own three of the four lowest pitches per plate appearances spots. Then I would add, stop being a jerk, I’m just sharing a theory.

Indeed, once the technology like FIELD f/x is finally released, we will have a better understanding if that is actually a factor. Through the FIELD f/x system, we will be able to say with some certainty that Shortstop X is able to get to more groundballs Y distance away when Pitchers 1 through 4 are on the mound but his range is reduced when Liriano is pitching. Until the day that we are able to quantify and measure it, this remains conjecture.

You can’t often get a zebra to change its stripes and Liriano has developed as a strikeout artist and remains one. That said he needs to attempt to make inroads towards lowering his pitch count in 2011. What I would like to see is a hybrid of the strikeout artist and one that can dial up a grounder on one pitch occasionally, if for no other reason, to keep his fielders on their toes. After all, strike outs a fascist and ground balls are democratic – or so the Crash Davis idiom goes.