Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is Franchise Back?

In 2006, Francisco Liriano completely dominated baseball, holding the #2 pitcher role behind Johan Santana. Had Cy Young winner Santana not been at the top of the rotation, Liriano would have been the number 1 pitcher. Liriano was a rookie in 2006, but his pitching line made him look like he was in his prime. He was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 121 innings. Oh, and he also had 144 strikeouts. That's right, he had a 10.7 strikeout/9 inning ratio. For a 22 year-old to do that was unreal. For comparison, the strikeout king (Nolan Ryan) only achieved a higher strikeout/9 inning ratio twice in his career (11.3 and 11.5). Furthermore, he kept hitters to a .205 BA for the season. Sandy Kofax never achieved a higher ratio than Liriano's 2006 year (his best was a 10.5 strikout/9 inning ratio). Steve Carlton never achieved a higher ratio either, with his highest being an 8.7. Randy Johnson is one of the only pitchers who has had a better ratio than Liriano, doing so 12 times in his career.

People considered Liriano's slider in 2006 as downright filthy. The ball would come right down the plate and then all the sudden it dropped into the dirt to right-handed batters. In 2006, his slider was also over 90 MPH, so it looked like it was coming in as a fastball. Very few pitchers have that type of slider and it is simply devastating.

The problem with this slider was that he put an immense amount of torque on his elbow, which caught up to him later in the season. Toward the end of the season, he had an elbow injury causing him to miss most of September along with the post-season. The end result was that he had to get Tommy John surgery. An injury requiring Tommy John surgery is the biggest nightmare for a pitcher. You have to miss a full year to recover, and then there is still the chance that you will never be as good as you were prior to surgery.

Liriano came back in 2008 at age 24, going 6-4 with a 3.91 ERA in 76 innings. His strikeout ratio dropped considerably, only posting a 7.9 strikeout/9 inning. These numbers were not terrible for just coming back from Tommy John surgery. A sub-4 ERA is very nice to do at a young age. When comparing his 3.91 ERA to the 2.16 ERA back in 2006, it shows that he definitely did not fully recover from the surgery.

In 2009, Liriano was no better. Actually, the numbers were so bad, that he was moved to the bull-pen at the end of the season. His record was 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 132.6 innings. Many people started to give up on him at this point.

When all hope was lost, a miracle happened. It started when he dominated winter ball last year. When he came to Spring Training, many people thought he was the dark horse to win the 5th spot in the rotation. He was battling Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing throughout Spring Training for the job, but in the end, Ron Gardenhire gave Liriano the nod.

In Liriano's first game this season, he gave up 3 runs in 6 innings against the White Sox. It was a quality start, but he did give up 5 walks. In his second game, he pitched 7 innings of scoreless baseball against the Red Sox, walking only 2 batters and giving up 4 hits. He also had 8 strikeouts in the game. His slider started to look very close to the same as back in 2006. In his third game this season, he had another scoreless outing of 8 innings against the Indians. His latest outing was another phenomenal outing, going 8 shutout innings with 10 strikeouts.

So far this season, he has a .93 ERA in 29 innings, which is leading the American League. He has kept batters to a .180 BA thus far this season. What is amazing is that he is holding left-handed batters to a .087 BA (2-23). Why is that important? Most power hitters bat left-handed. The stat is saying that Liriano is shutting down almost every left-handed batter in each teams' lineup. That is really impressive.

We will have to see how he does though for the rest of the season. If he continues to pitch like he has so far this season, people will start to call him Franchise again (his nickname back in 2006 because of how dominant he was). I think that he has already showed that he has returned to form, but we will just have to wait and see.