Last year, the American League Central's defending champions didn't defend their championship real well.
Actually, they sucked. The Twins went from 94 wins (and first place) in 2010 to 99 losses (and last place) in 2011.
There were any number of reasons for this stunning transformation, chief among them the loss of superstars Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. But No. 3 on the list was probably what happened to Francisco Liriano, who went from a 3.62 ERA in 2010 to a 5.09 in '11.
In my business, management (i.e. me) spends most of its collective time coming up with new ways to make writing less fun. In the Twins' business, management spends most of its time coming up with new ways to fix players who probably can't be fixed. Thus, the attempted conversion of Francisco Liriano from strikeout pitcher to finesse pitcher. From Phil Mackey (via ESPN1500.com):
Anderson and Gardenhire have been more and more adamant that Liriano not shy away from contact -- that he trust his fastball and changeup early in counts, as opposed to throwing slider after slider.
Only a handful of pitchers threw more sliders, percentage-wise, than Liriano in 2011. Throwing fewer sliders could also put less stress on his arm.
"More than anything else we just don't want to see slider, slider, slider, slider, slider," Gardenhire said. "We like to see when he uses all of his pitches. Pitch with his fastball, throw that slider every once in a while and use that changeup. Mix them all in. Use them all.
"The one thing you've got to know with him is he's got a great fastball, and he doesn't have to fall in love with that slider. So if he stays with a good mix like he's doing right now he'll be fine."
We heard a lot of this same stuff a year ago. Liriano pitched really well in 2010, but he struggled in the postseason and suddenly everybody seemed to focus on his deficiencies. And he just didn't pitch real well in 2011.
Oh, he had his moments. Especially the no-hitter. But that game was a freak of nature, with six walks and two strikeouts. There were a couple of other gems, but Liriano hit the DL twice and finished the season with a 5.09 ERA. So now management does have some legitimate reason for skepticism. Maybe it really is time for Liriano to change his pitching style, at least somewhat.
There's just one potential problem, though: It's not clear that Liriano's other pitches are really much good.
Before Liriano got hurt in 2006, his slider was ungodly. Seriously, his slider was so incredible that its demise might have been predictable; it's possible that the human body simply can't throw a pitch that good for more than a few months. According to FanGraphs' pitch values, Liriano's slider that season was worth 24 runs in only 121 innings. Among starting pitchers, there just hasn't been anyone who threw a slider like Liriano's in recent seasons.
And he threw a lot of them, around 38 percent that season. After the (perhaps) resultant Tommy John surgery, Liriano returned in 2008 and threw significantly fewer sliders, around 27 percent in both '08 and '09. But the slider remained his best pitch, according to the numbers, even though he wasn't throwing as many of them. Or throwing them as hard as he used to.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Liriano wasn't nearly as effective in those seasons as he'd been. After posting a brilliant 4.54 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 145 major-league innings, that figure dropped to just 1.95 in 2008 and '9.
But in 2010, more than two years removed from his elbow surgery, Liriano threw more sliders and, presto change-o, his strikeout-to-walk ratio rocketed to 3.47 -- fifth-best in the American League -- and Liriano won the league's Comeback Player of the Year Award. Would he have been even better if he'd thrown fewer sliders?
You can color me skeptical.
When he's throwing sliders and pitching well, nobody says throw fewer sliders. When he's throwing sliders and not pitching well, like last season, everybody says throw fewer sliders.
Well, okay. But he actually did throw fewer sliders last season: roughly 29 percent, compared to 34 percent in 2010. Hell, last year he didn't throw enough sliders. Because you know what? If you believe the pitch values, last year his fastball was sort of worthless (-7 runs) and his slider was pretty good (+6).
No, it's not nearly that simple. Probably isn't, anyway. Pitches are interactive to some degree, and maybe Liriano's fastball would have been more effective if he'd thrown fewer sliders. Maybe his slider would have been more effective if he'd thrown fewer sliders.
Yet I remain unconvinced by this whole throw-fewer-sliders-and-pitch-to-contact business. Francisco Liriano has enjoyed two really good seasons, and in both he's thrown lots of sliders and struck out lots of batters. I'm not saying he can't be really good with some other approach. But there's not yet any evidence that he can.
Of course, there's also no real evidence that he can throw huge numbers of sliders and stay healthy enough to pitch well for a whole season. He's done that once in the last six years. It's a sad state of affairs, but at this point you probably just throw him out there, sliders aplenty, and get what you can before he breaks down again.
Pitching's a rough line of work.