Monday, May 25, 2015

Contemplating Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano fires Sunday against the New York
Mets, He struck out 12 in six innings.
The Monday print column was in large part a review of the new book "Big Data Baseball," and in the process I mentioned in passing that author Travis Sawchik describes what the Pittsburgh Pirates did to repair Francisco Liriano's pitching.

Liriano, of course, spent years with the Twins, alternating between periods of dominance and periods of futility. He was traded to the White Sox in 2012 (in a deal that brought Eduardo Escobar to the Twins) and signed with the Pirates as a free agent during that following offseason. He's still with Pittsburgh, racking up a 16-8, 3.02 mark in 2013 and a 7-10, 3.38 line in 2014. (The Twins shelled him on Wednesday this week, but on Sunday he struck out 12 in six innings against the Mets. He is 2-4, 3.86 so far this year.)

His ERA in seven (full or partial) seasons with the Twins was 4.33; his ERA with Pittsburgh, including Sunday's outing, is 3.29, more than a run lower. So yeah, the Pirates have gotten more from Frankie than the Twins did. What did they do? And could the Twins have done the same things?

Sawchik offers three specific changes. One I think might be irrelevant, a second makes sense to me and the third I find dubious enough that I suspect the Pirates fed him a bill of goods.

The three changes:

  • They had him raise his arm slot under the theory that a more overhand delivery would limit his wildness "east-west," or inside-outside. 
  • They paired him with a superior pitch-framing catcher (Russell Martin), whose adept receiving got him a handful of extra called strikes a game.
  • They had him drop his four-seam fastball and replace it with a two-seam fastball (sinker).

The arm slot thing, maybe; but the fact of the matter is, Liriano still throws fewer pitches in the strike zone than anybody. (And he tops the charts in getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone.)

The pitch-framer, absolutely. Martin is near the top of the charts in that stat annually, and the Twins have not made that a priority when choosing catchers. If Martin got him, say, one extra called strike an inning, that's huge. The difference between, say, a 2-1 count and a 1-2 count is tremendous.

The specifics of the pitch repertoire, I question.

The Twins of Liriano's time, with Rick Anderson as pitching coach, were big believers in the two-seam fastball. I have to believe they pushed the two-seamer on Liriano. Whether he brought it or not is another matter. (I think he did, at least at times.)

Beyond that, I think the pitch the Pirates encouraged Liriano to throw more often was the changeup. Last year, according to Baseball Info Systems. Liriano threw only 43 percent fastballs. He threw 32 percent sliders and 25 percent changeups. In 2011, BIS says, he threw 52 percent fastballs, 29 percent sliders and 20 percent changes -- and I have a hard time believing he threw 20 percent change ups at any time with the Twins.

New pitching coach Neil Allen is a more vocal proponent of changing speeds than Anderson was. Allen might have been more effective with Liriano than Anderson was. We'll never know.

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