April 28, 2010

Is Francisco Liriano the Boogy Man?

If there is one thing that the Twins organization lacks, it's a front-of-the-rotation starter. Even in the minor leagues, very few pitchers project to be number two starters, let alone having the potential to be an ace. But one thing that has remained is that Francisco Liriano has the most potential out of of any pitcher in the system.

As a naturally optimistic person, I've dreamed of Liriano regaining his dominance. That's the reason I've gotten uncontrollably giddy whenever I've heard a report of him "turning a corner." And time, after time again, I've been disappointed by the reports not matching what Liriano does on the mound. I'm sure he's had positive bullpen sessions or positive Spring Training outings, but I couldn't help but wonder what was real and what wasn't.

And now, it looks like it's finally becoming true.

Last night, Liriano faced off against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers. Verlander, if you don't recall, won the Rookie of the Year award in 2006; the same year Liriano broke onto the scene as a 22-year-old phenom. Had Liriano not missed the last two months with a torn ulnar collator ligament in his elbow, he not only would have ran-away with the award, but he also would have had a great shot at becoming just the second player in baseball history to win the Cy Young Award as a rookie. That's how good he was. And since that year, Verlander has gone on to have great success while Liriano has struggled to regain any sort of his 2006-self. But last night was a serious case of deja vu.

(Duane Burleson/AP Photo)

No Verlander didn't dominate, but that's not what I'm referring to. It was Liriano, who looked more like his 2006-self since, well, 2006. He didn't have a 98 mph fastball, but he threw 96 mph for the first time (at least, that I've seen) since undergoing Tommy John Surgery. He also struck out 10 batters, which was the first time that he's recorded double-digit strikeouts since July 28, 2006 against (ironically) the Detroit Tigers.

As Aaron Gleeman wrote, what can't be overlooked in Liriano's success is his regained ability to induce a high percentage of ground-ball outs. Through four starts (note: very small sample size), Liriano has a ground-ball out to fly-ball out ratio of 1.35; which is .02 points higher than it was in 2006.

In fact, many of his numbers are much better this season.

                              Year    BAA   OBPA   OPSA   P/PA
                              2006   .205   .260   .564   3.80
2010 .180 .255 .485 3.65

To be clear, in no way, by cherry-picking stats am I trying to imply that he's a better pitcher in 2010. Despite his success this season, he was still a more dominating presence in '06. But what I am hoping to show you is that despite striking out an average of 2.5 batters/per nine innings and having a decrease in velocity, he has learned the art of pitching, which (as Seth Stohs mentions) is a scary thought.

Liriano's slider has been arguably the best in baseball this season, thanks (as Parker Hagemen wrote,) to great control of his fastball. In 2009, Liriano's fastball was one of the worst in baseball. In 2010, FanGraphs shows that he's throwing an above-average fastball, despite a BAA of .310 against it. His slider has been outstanding and he proved last night that he's able to throw it for strikes, which absolutely baffled the Tigers.

Maybe he's not as electrifying as he was in 2006, but he still is dominant. Is he as dominant as he was in 2006? Maybe not. But dominance is dominance and I'll take it in any form. Liriano's success is just what the Twins needed and if he can continue to pitch like a number one starter, this team may be better than we all originally thought. And that thought is very scary.