By Mike Moritz
Franciso Liriano is at the "right age" and statistically speaking, he indeed is in for a good year.
Playing in the new Twins stadium, Target Field, Liriano had almost no help from it in terms of keeping his home runs in yard. The problem that plagued much of his disastrous 2009 season? Giving up home runs. He gave up 21 dingers in 136.2 innings in 2009. But 2010 was a much different story as he gave up just 9 in 191.2 innings, reducing his former rate 1.38 HR/9 to almost a homer less: .42 HR/9. His improvement in home runs was a key cog to his 2010 comeback and it is was one of the things that destroyed his 2009 season. He ended 2009 with a 4.87 FIP and an even worse 5.80 ERA, a total of 1.1 WAR.
So let's start there, with the home runs.
When looking at why maybe he was able to cut his home runs in more than half, I came to two simple conclusions: First, he relied less on his fastball last year and used more of his off speed pitches: slider and change-up (and rarely a cutter). Second, Liriano's increased fastball velocity.
The first conclusion: In 2009, he threw his fastball 56.3% and in 2010, he dropped that number to 48.6%. He did not change his approach for his change-up, it was 16.8% to 17.6%. His slider is what he started to throw more. He threw his slider 33.8% in 2010 versus just 26.9%. By throwing his slider more often, he saw his ground ball jump a huge a amount as a result, just as in his fabulous 2006 season, when he had a 2.55 FIP. The high ground ball rate was a huge factor in why he reduced his home run total. Considering that deciding what pitches to throw and how often to throw them is not a physical skill, Liriano should return to this approach in the upcoming season since it brought him success in 2010, I see no reason that he should not.
The second conclusion: Liriano threw considerably faster last year with his fastball. His average speed of 93.7 mph was very nice and exactly a full two mph faster than in 2009 and even more so than 2008. He had Tommy John surgery in November of 2006 and missed all of the 2007 season. But 2008, his first year from the surgery, his velocity was down from 94.7 in 2006 to 90.9 in 2008. TJ surgery almost always leave the pitcher with more velocity after than before the operation, not so much with Liriano. 2009 did not bring much more speed, as his average fastball rose to 91.7 mph, yet he fell apart. He ended up having more elbow problems that year and took a trip to the DL in August. But as noted before, Liriano finally found his fastaball again suggesting that his elbow, for once in a while, is healthy and ready to take on potentially about 220 innings of work.
Liriano has seen eye-to-eye on his opponent BABIPs in his career, he has a .313 career BABIP. But he has specifically had his bad luck in the last two years. His passable but kind of bad .319 mark rose to an ugly .331 mark in 2010, yet he still put up great numbers. I would not call this unlucky seeing that his line-drive rates have been pretty much the same for his whole career. On the other hand, if Liriano keeps this high ground ball rate up, he might get a little unlucky, or lucky. The problem is that we do not exactly know how the Twins infield defense will turn out, it has been reformed a little bit. So the neutral thought is that Liriano's BABIP will regress back to the mean, just as most BABIPs do.
Another big note to consider is that he gave up just 2.72 BB/9 in 2010, a huge improvement from 2009's 4.28 BB/9. He also struck out a lot more batters, 9.44 K/9 in 2010 to his still good 8.03 mark from 2009. Both of these numbers from 2010 are very comparable to his great 2006 season. 2006: 2.55 FIP; 2010: 2.66 FIP. 2006: 10.71 K/9; 2010: 9.44 K/9. 2006: 2.38 BB/9; 2010: 2.72 BB/9. Yes, overall, his 2006 numbers were slightly better, but the numbers are scarily similar regardless.
Fransico Liriano is back and is completely healthy, as far as I know, and he has many reasons to break out this year. Not talking about his statistics, he is also 27, entering his prime. He is also likely going get about 220 innings on a Twins team that is going to be working a little bit harder to get into the playoffs this year considering all of the big losses (most notably to the bullpen) and the upgrades of the Tigers and White Sox within the division. I'm dubbing him for a great year.
(Statistics in courtesy of: fangraphs.com, baseballinjurytool.com and espn.com)