Tonight at 7:05 pm EST, Francisco Liriano will take the mound in the second game of the Yankees v. Twins series. If you asked me where I thought Liriano would be at this point last year, I probably would have said the Yankees. After an incredibly strong 2.66 FIP performance in 2010, the lefty looked destined for pinstripes. Question marks surrounding the Yankee rotation created plenty of trade rumors throughout the offseason and the beginning of last season, but none were more convincing than a deal with the Twins. While the team from Minnesota insisted publicly that Liriano was unavailable, there were plenty of rumors on the contrary. When Liriano started the season struggling, and the Yankees were in need of a starting pitcher, particularly a lefty, I thought the stars aligned. Fortunately, the trade I foresaw never happened, and although Liriano went on to throw a no hitter last year, he was pretty awful. He finished 2011 with a 5.09 ERA, a 4.54 FIP, a 7.50 K/9, and a 5.02 BB/9, more importantly a velocity drop and shoulder injury issues. Yet between all his awful starts, he always seemed to shine with an ace-like performance reminiscent of his 2010 season. Theres no adjective that better describes the pitcher than an enigma. From all the stat sheets I look at, and even into early research for this article, nothing appears consistent for the guy. So let’s try to wrap our heads around what he did last year.
Liriano is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher. In 2009 the lefty used his four-seamer 48.8% of the time and the two-seamer 12.1%, but in 2010 he used the two-seamer 6.6% of the time and the four-seamer 42.8%. Now you’d think that a guy who posted a 2.66 FIP after making the switch to the two-seamer would keep throwing two-seamers, but in 2011 he switched back to throwing the four-seam fastball 32.8% of the time, and the two-seamer 17.9%. Liriano did suffer from shoulder issues last year, so perhaps he was compensating for a velocity decrease by throwing his four-seamer instead. Regardless, he was able to maintain a decent groundball rate. Other than a slider, he also throws a change up 19% of the time.
So anyone that has followed the pitchf/x scouting series knows that this graphic doesn’t usually look like this. Here we have his pitch release points from 2011. The area spans a vertical area of about a foot, and horizontally it roams around from right above the pitching mound to 2.5 feet to the right of it. It would appear that Liriano is one of the rare pitchers that throw from multiple points, and whether he does that knowingly is an argument without an answer. I’ve found numerous articles talking about needing to fix his arm slot and the arm falling, but I’m not convinced that what we’re seeing is a bad thing. In his very successful 2010 season, Liriano also had a wide release zone, and in his no-hitter from May 3rd, 2011 the trend continued. Where I think this might hurt his game is that team’s have figured out that he throws his slider from the two release points, yet he primarily throws his changeup from the left one, and his two-seamer from the right one. If you can pick up on where the ball is released, Liriano could be tipping off his changeup and/or two-seamer.
The top picture is a visualization of the pitch trajectory from the release point on the right to home plate on the left based on a top view. The horizontal break on these pitches is hard to miss. While the break between the two-seamer and changeup are nearly identical into left handed hitters, the difference in break between the four-seamer and slider is dramatic. Looking at the second image, you can see the pitch trajectory from a 1st base or 3rd base view. You can see how the two-seamer will break down closer to home plate than the four-seamer, causing it to have sinker action. The slider has the strongest vertical break of all four pitches.
Now we have a catcher’s perspective of how each pitch breaks. The red fastball in the top right the four-seamer, which average a positive 8.44 inch vertical break, meaning it falls 8.44 inches less than a typical pitch with no spin conforming to gravity. This gives the four-seamer that rising action that’s described by hitters. The sinking action comes from the two-seamer which only has a 5.01 vertical break, causing many hitters to ground the ball into the dirt. The two-seamer usually has the most horizontal break into same side hitters, but the changeup moves into left handers the most for Liriano. While it does a good job of mimicking the two-seamer, the horizontal movement is unusually strong. You can also see how much different the slider moves from the other pitches, where it has the greatest break down and away from lefties.
This graph better demonstrates the velocity of the pitches, and the angle at which they’re thrown. You can clearly see how the changeup and slider are thrown around 85mph, and the two-seamer and four-seamer are thrown at around 92 mph. While the terms for each pitch are subjective, it looks like he’s tightened up his slider compared to other years. He still throws it 6 mph slower than his fastballs, but I’d compare the majority of the slider spin angles and horizontal movement to a cutter. Looking at the fastballs and changeup spin angles, keep in mind your typical lefty two-seamer is around 140-115 degrees, while the typical lefty four-seamer is thrown around 160-140 degrees. The higher angle (or lower degree in this case) gives the pitch more horizontal and vertical movement, which is why the two-seamer sinks and moves in to same side hitters. For Liriano, his two-seamer sat around 119 degrees, which is at the high-point of normal, but his four-seamer had a higher than normal angle at 135 degrees. This unusual spin angle of the four-seam could be a reason why he was able to maintain a high groundball rate. The final angle to look at is the changeup, which was especially high (low in degrees-wise) at 116 degrees, and the reason why the pitch had the most horizontal movement in to lefties.
Where He Throws It
I’ve lowered the sample size here by two months to save your eyes from a cluster of madness. Against righties here, we have four-seam fastballs in to the hitter and up in the zone. While two-seamers can be spotted everywhere, he likes to attack away in the zone. The slider is mostly located down and in to the batter, but there are plenty of instances where he threw the pitch high in the zone as well. There is a pretty path for the change, which was mostly thrown down and away, matching up with the two-seamer locations. Selection-wise he used his four-seamer the most at 29.0%, the slider at 27.4%, the changeup at 24.8%, and the two-seamer at 18.8%, so he was pretty good at mixing his pitches.
I’ve gone back to the original sample size for locations for left handed hitters. Liriano becomes a true fastball-slider pitcher against lefties. Here we see that he throws the two-seamer and four-seamer opposite to what we saw against righties, where he tries to jam lefties with the two-seamer moving in, and uses the four-seamer all around the zone, but mostly down or away. The slider here is thrown down and away as well, the typical lefty weak spot. It was very rare for a lefty to see a changeup, but he usually threw them for balls low. Selection-wise, he threw the slider the most at 38.0%, the four-seamer at 36.9%, the two-seamer at 23.5%, and the changeup at 1.6%.
When He Throws It
|Count||Four-Seam (R)||Two-Seam (R)||Slider (R)||Changeup (R)|
As I mentioned above, Liriano is a guy who can mix pitches well. You will see that on an 0-0 count guess hitters have a tough job. As he falls behind in the count, he unsurprisingly becomes more reliant on his fastball to get strike 1, but isn’t afraid to throw his changeup either. After strike 1, he begins to throw his breaking pitches more than 50% of the time. By the time he has 2 strikes, he’s throwing them around 70% of the time, mostly the slider, which is something you might be able to sit on. Against righties, the slider has a whiff rate of 18.7%, and his second best stikeout pitch is the changeup, which gets a slightly lower 18.5% whiff rate.
|Count||Four-Seam (L)||Two-Seam (L)||Slider (L)||Changeup (L)|
Facing lefties, you can expect to begin the count with a four-seamer or slider. As Liriano falls behind in the count, he isn’t afraid to throw the two-seamer to jam pitchers for easy groundballs. This makes the fastball more than an 80% likelihood on 2-0, 3-1, and 3-0 counts. While the southpaw mixes pitches well in the beginning of the counts, he becomes very reliant on the slider after 2 strikes. With over a 60% rate, your best bet is to look down and away with a slider if you’re a hitter behind in the count. Even after throwing the slider so much, he still gets an incredible 25.9% whiff rate on the pitch.
Although his strikeout numbers weren’t extraordinary in 2011, you can’t doubt that the potential is there after career numbers around 9 K/9. Throwing two-seamers, four-seamers, and changeups with a lot of movement gave him a 48.6% groundball rate, 35.9% flyball rate, and 15.4% linedrive rate in 2011. His biggest problem is the walks, which might be a result of his incredible pitch movement, though he had no trouble with walks in 2010 sporting a 2.72 BB/9. While Liriano shares some slight home/away splits over his career in favor of the spacious Minnesota stadiums, he does have a pretty nasty platoon split. Against lefties, he’s been able to hold them to a .228/.298/.297 triple slash over his career (thank you slider), but against righties he’s been hurt by .257/.333/.409 numbers.
Against The Yankees
He’s only pitched 38.0 innings against the Yankees, but has a sparkling 3.08 ERA and 1.368 WHIP. He’s faired worse in Yankee Stadium, where he has a 4.74 ERA through 17.0 innings. In two starts in 2011, he gave up 4 runs in 5.0 innings in his second start on April 7th, and was lights out on August 20th, going 7.0 innings, 3 hits, 1 run.
|Probable Yankee Lineup||At Bats||Triple Slash|
|Derek Jeter SS||17||.353/.450/.647|
|Nick Swisher RF||21||.238/.261/.333|
|Robinson Cano 2B||18||.353/.368/.389|
|Alex Rodriguez 3B||11||.091/.375/.091|
|Mark Teixeira 1B||20||.150/.261/.300|
|Curtis Granderson CF||25||.160/.222/.320|
|Andruw Jones DH||15||.200/.333/.467|
|Russell Martin C||8||.125/.125/.125|
|Brett Gardner LF||12||.417/.462/.583|
Heres the part where we try to predict an enigma. In my opinion we’re looking at a guy capable of pitching a no-hitter against any team, or giving up 6 runs to the Orioles in 4.0 innings like he did in his first start. From the PITCHF/x material we covered today, I think its a fairly big deal that Liriano has a 1-2 foot difference in release points for his changeup and two-seamer. Whether it’s hurt him control wise (I doubt it), I think it’s something some hitters have the ability to read. His ability to strikeout any hitter at the plate, and his ability to get groundballs makes it hard to think he’ll be hit, but it happens far too often for him. I’ll say that Liriano pitches a decent game, a quality start, but I don’t think we’ll see another August 20th beatdown on the Bombers. Expect lots of change ups down and away to righties, while Granderson will have no change against that slider. The Yankees need to work the count to where Liriano is more predictable and then crush his dreams.
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