The Return Of Francisco Liriano's Stuff

Minneapolis, MN, USA: Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Francisco Liriano has had an up-and-down season, but the White Sox acquired him from the Twins while he's been more up than down.

You might remember that, earlier in the year, Francisco Liriano was terrible at pitching. After putting up a Cy Young-caliber 2010, Liriano struggled in his follow-up campaign, and things went even further downhill in the first month of the 2012 season. We even took a look at the root cause of it all in mid-May, when Liriano was demoted from the rotation to the bullpen.

Rather than reprint 1,000 words from before, here are the key points from over two months ago:

  • Liriano's change-up and four-seam fastball had essentially become useless offerings, failing to induce swings-and-misses or ground balls, and in the four-seamer's case, was lacking the velocity it once had.
  • His slider, easily his top pitch in the past, was only average at creating whiffs, and no longer forced ground balls.
  • Liriano's lack of command and secondary stuff likely meant that the .369 batting average on balls in play he was sporting at the time was his doing more so than that of the Twins, who had an average defense.

The slider is the key to the whole thing. Liriano has survived in the past with his slider as his only competent offering -- in 2010, according to PITCHf/x pitch values, it accounted for 15.7 of the 16.5 runs produced by his pitches, or 95 percent. The ineffectiveness of his change-up and four-seam fastball are almost expected, but that slider helped him keep his head above water. When that vanished in the first month-plus of 2012, there was nothing for him to do, as he was a starter without any useful pitch, never mind a plus out one.

The move to the bullpen didn't help him out in terms of statistical results, as he posted a 9/7 K/BB in his seven relief frames, but, upon returning to the rotation, something clicked. In his first start back on May 30, Liriano struck out nine hitters and walked just two over six innings, posting what was easily his loftiest Game Score of the season. Since that point, he's responsible for a 3.63 ERA in 72 innings, with 10.9 punch outs per nine against 4.1 walks per nine. That's a high walk rate, but if Liriano is whiffing nearly 11 batters per nine innings, it's more than tolerable, and a huge improvement over the nearly seven per nine he showed in the season's first two months.

What changed for Liriano that made him into a useful -- albeit difficult to trust -- starter once more? In short: everything.

The velocity of his four-seam fastball returned. Liriano was clearing 92 miles per hour on average in the season's first month, but his velocity increased to an average of nearly 94 when he shifted to the bullpen. Upon leaving that role, he maintained that pitch speed, and in July was even closer to 95 for an average than 94. This has led to modest gains in swings-and-misses and grounders for the pitch, but the real treat has been that he has a more reliable offering to setup his slider with.

Liriano's sinker has seen similar increases in speed, and he's begun to utilize that pitch more than the four-seamer. While it hasn't been very good relative to other sinkers in terms of forcing grounders, it's been his most consistent pitch for causing whiffs. Similarly, his change-up stopped being totally useless, as the rate at which both grounders and whiffs were induced shot up, although the former took until June to get going.

Most importantly, his slider seems to be back. When we last looked at Liriano, his slider was seeing swings-and-misses at a below-average rate, -0.13 whiffs/swing in terms of its z-score. (In order for a z-score to be significant, you want to see it above or below zero by one or more.) After his resurgence, though, his slider is now creating whiffs at a much higher rate, and his season z-score on whiffs/swing sits at 1.23. His groundball/ball in play (GB/BIP) on the pitch has similarly moved from -1.52 to 0.65. The pitch is now worth +8.1 runs on the season, more than it earned in all of 2011, despite the inauspicious start.

The Twins took this rebound and sent it packing to the Chicago White Sox, as Liriano has certainly been "back" many a time before, and was set to be a free agent at season's end, anyway. With the qualifying offer required under the new collective bargaining agreement, the Twins would have needed to guarantee Liriano roughly $13.5 million in order to attempt to receive compensation. Given his struggles, inconsistencies, and the fact he was making just $5.5 million this year, that made him something of a risk to extend an offer -- it's the same kind of reasoning that resulted in Anibal Sanchez's trade to the Tigers, except with far less of a return for Minnesota.

The Twins aren't in the AL race this year, giving them leave to deal within the division. Granted, they didn't receive anything special in return for Liriano, but they were set to receive nothing at all originally. Chicago now gets to hope that the lefty can keep up with the Good Liriano act for another two months as they attempt to win the AL Central. Given just how great Liriano has been in the past, it's a worthwhile risk, especially for a club that can't offer much in the way of prospects for most of the front line starters that were available. There's a chance they will learn just why he was so cheap, though, if his slider starts to falter again, but at the price they acquired him for, you make this deal every time.

PITCHf/x data courtesy of the fine folks at Brooks Baseball

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