Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Legend of LiriaNoNo

For just the fifth time in Minnesota history (sixth if you want to include Dean Chance’s rain-shortened outing in 1967), a Twins pitcher has completed a ball game without allowing a hit.

Not only was this Liriano first ever complete game at the major league level, but the no-hitter was also his first complete game at any level. My research showed that dating back to 1960 no pitcher had ever thrown a no-hitter in their first ever professional complete game. Considering the amount of complete games pitchers threw pre-1990, I’d wager that this may actually be the first instance in history of this happening. It was a Steve Nebraska-esque performance.

Alas, savory and memorable as this no-hitter is, it was far from perfect. Liriano managed to be “effectively” wild as Sox hitters missed on pitches out over the plate or swung while they were ahead in the count. After all, Liriano put six men on with walks therefore a bit more patience by the White Sox offense and the story of the game could have been focused on the Twins inability to score runs once again.

Looking back at the data, Liriano struggled to get ahead of hitters last night:

Key Stat
Selected Outing(s)
MLB Avg.
Working Ahead
in Count
1st pitch strike %
1 of first 2 pitches for strike %
2 of first 3 pitches for strikes %
% of 0-1 counts that become 0-2 counts
% of 1-1 counts that become 1-2 counts

More critically, he threw his fastball for a strike just 52% of the time, well-below the league norm of 64%. In theory, a more patient team may have made the lefty pay for that lack of command. When it came down to it, the Chicago lineup came to Liriano’s rescue by swinging at whatever strikes came into the zone instead of making him prove that he could repeat it.

I would imagine that the instruction from the Sox bench was to “wait for your pitch” or “let him earn it” but far too frequently Chicago’s hitters instead took a hack and put it in play at fielders, much to Liriano’s delight. Several were indeed well-struck but plays by his outstanding defense, like Denard Span’s catch in the left-center gap or Danny Valencia’s grab behind the base in the seventh inning, extinguished any hopes of the Sox starting a rally.

Reviewing the MLB.tv footage as well as the pitch f/x data found at BrooksBaseball.net and comparing it to his previous start against Tampa Bay, to me, there is little indication of any visual adjustments – release point or otherwise – that may suggest a wholesale improvement based upon the coaching staff’s between-start tutorial. Admittedly, later in the ball game there is some evidence of him bending a bit more and finishing lower, helping drive the ball down in the zone, but through the first several innings Liriano was finishing higher resulting in pitches up. Thankfully, he had plenty of help from his aforementioned defense including three double-plays turned behind him.

In addition to facing an overzealous lineup, Liriano also did well pitching backwards towards the latter half of the ballgame. After mainly using his fastball to start hitters off in the first three innings of the game, Liriano turned to his slider and changeup to start the count from the sixth inning onwards. In fact, 9 of the final 13 hitters started off with non-fastballs.

While we analysts are all trying to figure out what this means in terms of his mechanics and his future, right now is a time to relish the historical moment and recognize the significance of a night that will live forever in Twins’ lore.