This is Part 1 of 5 of TheYankeeU’s preview of the 2010 American League Division Series.
Photo courtesy of daylife.com and the Associated Press
Without doubt, the Twins’ best hope to finally get over the hump and beat the Yankees in the playoffs rests in large part on the young shoulders of Francisco Liriano. With Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn scheduled to start Games 2 through 4, Liriano represents the Twins’ most dominant pitcher and best chance to shut down the potent Yankee offense. This very fact represents a sort of triumph for Liriano, who has had quite the rollercoaster of a career so far. In 2006 he was one of baseball’s hottest young commodities, a hard-throwing slider-chucking lefty who combined with Johan Santana to form one of the best one-two punches in all of baseball. Unfortunately for the Twins, Liriano went down like Frazier towards the end of the 2006 season and needed Tommy John surgery. He was out through the 2007 season and when he returned in 2008 he was not the same Liriano of old, flashing a few signs of brilliance but still struggling with command and hittability. In 2009 he began the season as a starter but struggled, posting a 5.80 ERA over 127 innings before getting moved to the bullpen. No one knew what to expect from Liriano heading into this year. The 2006 campaign was long gone, and it seemed reasonable to question if he would ever revert back to his old form. To their credit, the Twins gave him a chance to start in the rotation. After a mediocre first outing he quickly turned into one of the best pitchers in the American League. In his next three outings he didn’t surrender a single run, racking up 23 scoreless innings, striking out 24 and walking only 5. Liriano was back.
The start of the season proved to be no mirage. In 2010 Francisco Liriano has proven to be the ace that the Twins were hoping they had. He’s racked up 6.0 fWAR, good for 4th in the American League behind Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, and he’s accumulated 4.6 bWAR, good for 10th in the AL. He’s done this over a mere 191.2 innings pitched, giving up 184 hits, 77 earned runs, 58 walks and 201 strikeouts. His strikeout rate is 9.44 per nine innings, second in the American League amongst qualified pitchers and trailing only Boston ace Jon Lester (9.74). He bests Lester in the walk rate though, and his 2.72 BB/9 gives him a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.47, 5th best in the American League and superior to fellow aces Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander.
Beyond the basic stats is an interesting case of batted ball data. Liriano’s batting average on balls in play is a sky-high 0.340, which is 2nd in the AL only to James Shields. This goes a long way to explain the split between his ERA, which is 3.62, and his FIP, which is 2.66. In fact, the 0.96 difference between the ERA and the FIP is the highest of any qualified American League pitcher. Meanwhile, Liriano has the lowest home run rate of any qualified AL pitcher with 0.42 home runs per nine innings. Consequently his xFIP (which normalizes the home run rate, among other things) sits at 3.06, closer to his ERA. Liriano surrendered only two home runs in the first half of the season, and then surrendered none in July and only 1 in August, before giving up 6 in September. Of those September home runs, two were at home against the Royals and the Athletics, one was in Detroit and the final three came in his last start of the year at home against the homer-happy Blue Jays.
Liriano is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, and he relies heavily on his slider. In 2010 he threw his slider around 32% of the time, his fastball around 48%, and his changeup around 19% according to Texas Leaguers. When he has batters down 0-1, he’s more reliant on his fastball and his changeup than his slider, but that changes significantly if he goes to 0-2. At 0-2 he throws his slider 57% of the time. When the count is 1-2 it’s the same pattern: he throws the slider 55% of the time. When batters are ahead in the count, though, it’s a different story. At 1-0 he throws his fastball 56% of the time, his changeup at a 24% rate and his slider only around 15% of the time. This pattern becomes more pronounced if he falls behind 2-0: he goes to the fastball at a 71% rate. If the at-bat goes to 3-0 this percentage jumps to 85% and is similarly reliant on the fastball in 3-1 counts (68%). If the at-bat goes to 2-1 he’s more varied in his approach, throwing a fastball 49%, a slider 31% and a changeup 15% of the time, nearly in line with his season averages. However, if he’s even in the count at 2-2 or at 3-2, he reverts back to the slider usage, using it 60% on 2-2 and 75% on 3-2. Obvious pitcher is obvious: Liriano uses the fastball early in the count or when behind to the batter, and throws slider after slider when up in the count and to try to get a strikeout. Obvious or not, it works. When Liriano is ahead 0-1, batters OPS a mere .557 against him. When the count goes to 0-2, that number falls to an incredible .413. In fact, 76 of the 147 plate appearances against Liriano that have gone 0-2 have ended in strikeout, or around 52%, some 10% better than league average. A mere 6 of those PAs have ended in walks. There is a simple reason why hitters can’t take advantage of this predictable pattern: his slider is excellent. In fact, Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Value metric rates it the best slider in baseball in 2010, no surprise to anyone who has watched hitters chase the pitch down in the dirt.
Accordingly, Kevin Long and the Yankee hitters have their work cut out for them as they try to figure out an approach for Francisco Liriano. Do you lay off the more hittable fastballs early in the count in order to lengthen the at-bat and elevate Liriano’s pitch count, knowing that the more potent slider is coming later in the at-bat? Are you able to recognize that the slider is coming on the pitcher counts and lay off of it as it spins out of the zone? Or do you recognize that Liriano is stingy with the walk and try to imitate the 2010 Derek Jeter: attacking the early fastballs and hoping to get good results?
Whatever they do, they’ll be dealing with a pitcher not accustomed to high pitch counts in 2010. He’s thrown over 110 pitches only 3 times in 2010, on April 27, May 2 and 5/26. He averages 97 pitches per start, and that number jumps to 99 if you remove his illness-shortened outing on September 24 against Detroit. His last six starts have seen low pitch counts: 104, 95, 103, 81, 58 and 91. This could prove to be an advantage for the Yankees. The Twins clearly tapered his workload down the stretch, which bodes well for his future but leaves in question his stamina in October in a season in which his workload is at a career-high. Liriano helps himself by limiting walks and getting tons of groundballs (54%), but dealing with the Yankee A-lineup in the playoffs may be a horse of a different color. If the Twins have designs on getting past the Yankees and making it to the American League Championship Series, they’ll need Liriano to shake off his recent struggles and perform at peak levels. Opposing him will be CC Sabathia, not too shabby of a pitcher himself.