Friday, July 16, 2010

Bank on a better second-half for Liriano

The Twins starting pitching staff sputtered into the All-Star Break abused and confused in the month of July. The initial start by Kevin Slowey on the other side of the Midsummer Classic did little to reassure the team that things were going to turn around quickly either. In yet another abbreviated start, Slowey allowed five earned runs on nine hits in just three innings. This performance aided in increasing the starting staff’s ERA to a ghastly 6.71 for the month – the second-worst in baseball, ahead of only the Toronto Blue Jays – while sinking the team to a 3-8 record over the past 11 games and distancing themselves from view of the division-pacing White Sox.
Now, once again, the Twins turn to Francisco Liriano to see if the southpaw can stop the bleeding.
In the TwinsCentric Trade Deadline Primer, I stated that “Liriano might be one of the AL’s better starters in the first-half.” While some might disagree with that assessment, especially after his most recent start, the facts show that Liriano clearly possesses ace-like qualities:
  • He has the third-highest strikeouts per nine innings in the American League (9.81) behind only Toronto’s Brandon Morrow (9.99) and Los Angeles’s Jared Weaver (10.19).
  • His groundball rate (50.9%) is the 12th best in the American League.
  • His 0.17 home runs per nine innings is the lowest average in baseball. In fact, Liriano’s two home runs allowed are the fewest among pitchers that have thrown 100 innings to date.
  • His 12% swinging strike rate is the also the best in baseball, putting him ahead of such reputable arms like Tim Lincecum, Josh Johnson, Jared Weaver and Clayton Kershaw. This is the indications of some seriously filthy stuff. 

Because of his high volume of strikeouts, ability to keep the ball in the ballpark and regularly inducing ground balls, Liriano’s turned in the best performance by an American League pitcher when using the xFIP statistic (2.97). Nevertheless, in spite of this high-caliber performance, the lefty has been shackled to 6-7 record and higher ERA (3.87) than xFIP would expect.
If he’s so dominating, why is he the owner of a losing record and a steadily rising ERA?
There are two factors impeding him from achieving those superior numbers. The first of which is that amount of balls skirting past defenders. Liriano’s carrying around the league’s most top-heavy batting average on balls in play (.361). Depending on your religious beliefs, this is a strong indicator that either his defense is not supporting him or the baseball gods are directing more balls into vacant real estate. As a groundball-oriented pitcher, Liriano should have a significantly lower BABIP than the one he currently owns.

What we see from his splits below, regardless of the method they are directed into play, Liriano’s averages are much higher than the norm:
Liriano 2010
League Average
Line Drive
Ground Ball
Fly Ball
Instead of finding leather, the dinks, doinks, gorks and quails have nestled into areas of the field not patrolled by the Twins defense. Per usual, these numbers have a tendency to regress back towards the average. The back-half of the schedule should correct some of the defense’s (or baseball gods’) malfeasances, particularly with a healthy J.J. Hardy rounding out the infield.
The second factor, equally responsible for his misfortunes in the record department, is his lack of offensive support. The Twins have scored two runs or less in six of his 17 starts. Presently, Liriano’s 3.8 runs per game qualifies as the 10th-lowest amount of help in the AL. For a team that typically scores 4.6 runs per game, the Twins should provide Liriano with extra runs in the second-half of the year that they failed to supply in the first-half.
Despite the perception of him wilting under big-game pressure, Liriano retains many of the traits of a rotational ace. His stuff this year has proven to be overwhelming as he’s dispatching opponents at a torrid pace while avoiding hard contact. With improvements in these two areas, coupled with his continued dominance at the plate, Liriano should easily outperform his first-half numbers.