From our Twins season preview last Friday…
Is Francisco Liriano ever going to consistently be an ace pitcher?
In his rookie year of 2006, at age 22, Francisco Liriano threw 121 innings for the Twins, striking out 144 with a 2.16 ERA. He was worth 4.1 fWAR. That season remains the second best of his career. He blew out his elbow and didn’t throw an inning in 2007, and while recovering in 2008, he split the year between AAA Rochester and Minnesota, throwing a combined 194 innings between the two levels, striking out 180 and walking 63. It wasn’t a bad effort, but the fact that most of his year was spent in AAA was a red flag to some people. In 76 innings in the majors that season, Liriano struck out just 67 and walking 32.
Liriano spent all of 2009 in the majors, and it was a borderline disaster. He had a 5.80 ERA, struck out 122 and walked 65. The major sticking point with Liriano was the 21 homers he allowed. Liriano also only started 24 games that season, while also coming out of the bullpen five times. 2010 was the year that gave his fans hope, as he made 31 starts, struck out 201 (more than a batter per inning), and only walked 58. Plus, he cut the homers down to just nine. GLORY GLORY IN THE HIGHEST!
Things went in an opposite direction in 2011, which gave rise to the doubters again. He only made 24 starts, and had a career low strikeout rate and a career high walk rate (112 strikeouts and 75 walks in 134 1/3 innings). The homers also spiked, as he allowed 14 dingers that year. Liriano’s career path is bizarre. He has a four win season, a six win season, and three one win seasons. What the hell?
Looking at Liriano’s one win seasons, I noticed a trend. In each of those three seasons, his average fastball velocity was under 92 miles per hour. In his two good seasons, his velocity was over 93.5 miler per hour. That’s a pretty significant spike, which tends to point towards injuries. It also appears that in those two seasons with increased velocity, Liriano threw his fastball under 50% of the time, while in the one win seasons, he threw it over 50% of the time. Coincidence, or the sign of a bigger problem?
Liriano’s success is tied into his fastball: how much he uses it, and how hard he throws it. When his fastball is thrown harder, and used more sparingly, he’s successful. When it’s not thrown as hard, and used more frequently, he struggles. This points to injuries for me. When he’s healthy, Liriano is an awesome pitcher. He’s qualified for one ERA title during his career. Hell, he’s thrown more than 140 innings in the majors just once in his career. At his raw core, Liriano is a dominant pitcher. But it all comes down to health. If he’s able to stay healthy, Liriano can be the class of the Twins rotation. If not, he’s a back-end starter who can’t be counted on for much.
We can’t really solve the problem of consistency, though. Liriano is now 28, and has thrown less than 700 career innings. While he’s sublimely talented, the Twins really can’t count on him to consistently provide a good performance for their team. He’s worth the $5.5 million he’s making this season, and if he turns in a healthy year, some team would probably be willing to give him something in the range of a three year, $30 million deal this offseason. But if he has another 130 inning disaster, he should consider himself lucky if he gets $2 million. Liriano is a huge risk/huge reward kind of pitcher, and this season will be key in determining just what becomes of his career.