Sunday, February 06, 2011

Twins decision to go year-to-year with Liriano a prudent one

After last season’s performance, it seems that most have come to the consensus that Liriano has the stuff and potential to be a number one starter on almost every team in baseball. His velocity, slider and command were all refunded to him and he followed up an abysmal 2009 season, where he went 5-13 with a 4.87 FIP while allowing 21 home runs, with a year that earned him the Comeback Player of the Year, going14-10  with a 2.66 FIP and just nine home runs allowed.

Many analysts speculated and called for the Twins lock in this kind of young talent for several years to come. Signing him now would buy out his remaining arbitration years and be able to keep the cost of his first year or two of free agency down. Although this proposal makes complete fiscal sense, the front office, much to the chagrin of those analysts, decided it was best to remain flexible with Liriano – agreeing to a one-year, $4.3 million contract over the weekend.   

His standard numbers do not do his dominating 2010 performance justice. For example, his 12.4% swinging strike percentage was the highest in baseball, not only that, but hitters chased after 34.4% of all of his pitches out of the strike zone, the fourth-highest in baseball. Not surprising then was that his 9.44 strikeouts per nine innings pitched was the second highest in the AL. Meanwhile, contact was futile  exercise as Liriano’s 0.42 HR/9 was also the fourth-lowest in baseball – which would have been lower had he not had those two bad starts at the end of the year. I could continue prattling off the data but in the end all of it suggests that Liriano has the very real possibility of being one of the game’s best pitchers in 2011.

Of course, there is that very real possibility of another injury too. The injury data list is almost as equaling depressing as his above stats is impressive. While we grow enamored by the possibility of Liriano repeating or besting (considering his BABIP level in ’10) those results, there also exists the prospect that he finds himself in and out of doctors’ offices.

Back in the minor leagues, Liriano missed a significant amount of time due to shoulder injuries. In ’02 he made just 16 starts while making just five the following year. His health rebounded the following two years but then he encountered some more serious ailments. According to his chart found at, Liriano experienced “elbow soreness” in July 2006 that sidelined him for nine days. That begat what was described as “forearm soreness” in August that eventually led to his Tommy John surgery. Although his 2008 was injury-free, in 2009 he had “forearm swelling” that took him out of action for 11 days then was placed on the 15-day DL with “elbow fatigue” in August of that year, missing 22 days when he required a cortisone shot. This past season, Liriano reported “arm fatigue” in August and took a week off.

Over the years, Liriano’s mechanics have been dissected and often cited as a probable cause for his extensive injury history. As an outfielder converted to a pitcher in the Giants organization, Liriano’s motion always seemed to be more short-armed than most. Prior to his 2006 injury, he would raise his throwing arm above his shoulder level before coming home with the ball. During his rehab in the winter of ’07, the Twins followed his bullpen sessions and there was some discussion of altering his mechanics as La Velle E Neal reported:
“There has been talk of tinkering with Liriano's mechanics, but pitching coach Rick Anderson said it might be some minor things to eliminate Liriano's violent follow-through.”
When he returned to the mound in Minnesota, Liriano had indeed abandoned that higher arm raise for one that was below his shoulder level – whether or not this was an intentionally ironed-out kink by Rick Anderson or another Twins staffer or simply a byproduct of his surgically repaired elbow is unknown. Nevertheless, in 2008, Alex Eisenberg at identified the major delivery difference:

Then there is the question of what he’s throwing rather than how he’s throwing it.

In studying his mechanics back in 2008 Chris O’Leary, in his assessment of the adaptations Liriano made post-Tommy John, made this comment:
I should mention that I think that a major cause of Francisco Liriano's elbow problems was his reliance on his hard slider. Combine the slider, which is probably the worst pitch for the elbow due to the forceful supination, with questionable pitching mechanics and you have a recipe for disaster.
Although he maintained a high percentage of sliders in his first two years back (26.6% 2008-09) from Tommy John, he seriously dialed up the usage this past season. In his first year back with uninterrupted health, Liriano was one of the most prolific slider throwers in the game. In fact, 33% of his pitch selection in 2010 was sliders, the third-highest dosage among starting pitchers behind just Ervin Santana and Ryan Dempster.

There is an on-going debate on whether or not throwing sliders takes a bigger toll on a pitcher’s arm versus the other assortment of pitches. One study conducted by Dr. James Andrews and Dr Glenn Fleisig (among others) found that there was no conclusive evidence that showed that a slider was any more or less damaging to a pitcher’s arm than a fastball, but they conceded that the small sample size gave no real insight to whether or not this is true. What they did find is that slider tends to have greater “shoulder proximal force than curveballs”. This is noteworthy because if a pitcher demonstrates improper timing in their mechanics and increases their shoulder proximal force, according to Andrews’s book “The Athlete’s Shoulder”, additional pressure is put on the bicep tendon-complex which increasingly leads to a SLAP lesion.

Now, while it is just as likely that Liriano manages to navigate the entire 2011 without any instances of injuries cropping up, there is also plenty of medical history and mechanical questions that would make any organization contemplating a long-term investment to pause for a moment. Will it be more expensive to sign him if he repeats his 2010 campaign next year heading into his final year of arbitration? Almost certainly, however with an additional year before he becomes a free agent, the Twins were afforded the luxury of progressing with him on a one-year basis to ensure that he can withstand back-to-back seasons of clean health before extending him.

Will it be more expensive to sign him if he repeats his 2010 campaign next year heading into his final year of arbitration? Certainly, however, it behooves the Twins to fork over additional money later in order to gain some assurance that Liriano can handle the workload rather than lock him up this winter only to encounter issues mid-season next year – in the form of a torn labrum or more elbow problems. Because of that, the added piece of mind is almost certainly worth a few million dollars to the Twins.