It's still a few weeks away, which means there is plenty of time for things to change, but right now Francisco Liriano is one of the better starters in the American League.
Has anyone else realized how good Liriano has been this season? What began as cautious optimism at the scouting reports early in the spring have slowly begun to materialize in the form of solid start after solid start. At the outset, it was early. Too early to judge on one, two, three or four starts.
And then he hit a hiccup--a couple of starts where he didn't quite look himself, and you couldn't be blamed if that dark place in the back of your mind thought maybe it was just another flash. But now, past the ides of June, Liriano has made 12 starts and it's time we can start making some relatively stable observations about him.
The Fastball - In terms of velocity, accuracy and the confidence he has in the pitch, the man is back on form. While it's not the 95 mph pitch is was in 2006 (as Aaron Gleeman recently pointed out, click through for a good read), his fastball is averaging 93.5 mph...which is nearly two miles per hour faster than it was in 2009. It also has more movement, as pitch fx data has fooled FanGraphs into thinking that Liriano actually throws a two-seam fastball. With more velocity, more movement and the ability to place the ball where he wants it, Lirirano's fastball is legitimately a plus pitch for him for the first time since 2006.
The Slider - Liriano now relies on his knee-breaking slider 33% of the time, which is a definitive rise over the last two seasons when he'd only throw it one out of every four pitches. Just like the fastball, there has been increased movement on this pitch which has resulted in a few more silly-looking swings and just a few more strikeouts. For the last two seasons it was easy to be of the mind that the slider was a pitch that Liriano would throw only when he needed to, which because of his inconsistent command meant that at times hitters knew to look for it. In fact, so fast this season Liriano's slider has been worth more runs above average than any other pitcher's slider in baseball. If you wanted to look per 100 pitches, Liriano's slider ranks third among pitchers who actually throw the pitch (behind Florida's Anibal Sanchez, and San Diego's Mat Latos).
Ground balls - Part of what made Liriano so dangerous and so successful four years ago was his ability to not just strike people out, but to induce ground balls. Since his Tommy John surgery his ground ball rates hovered just over 40%, but this season the rate has spiked back to near 50%. This is more than an incidental bump, and it's as close to the 55% rate he posted in his rookie season.
Control - We've already talked about Liriano's willingness to go with his fastball again this season and throw it with confidence. This has been an across-the-board improvement. Liriano still goes off the plate with regularity, but he's once again baiting hitters with his stuff as they take cuts on more than 30% of his pitches outside of the strike zone. When he goes off the plate, he does so with a purpose, and less so because he's missing his spots. There is no greater gauge of a pitcher's control than his walk rates, and Liriano's are currently at a career-low 2.34 BB/9.
This is where it starts to get fun. Whenever you can compare one of your starters to the best of the rest and they can match up with them, you know you have something special. The Twins, obviously, haven't had a starter make a statement like that since Johan Santana commanded the mound in the Dome.
Let's do it, then. For the sake of convenience, we'll look at Liriano and then ten other guys that I think deserve consideration. I know, I know, I used the phrase "...guys I think..." so the list may not be completely objective, but I'm pretty sure I've been reasonably fair. Beyond the Boxscore discussed AL starting pitchers for the All-Star game in their own way, so be sure to check that out as well for a slightly different take.
There you have it. 11 of baseball's best and most effective pitchers in the American League. If you wanted to try and make a case for a guy like David Price, Colby Lewis or John Danks I wouldn't begrudge you that right, but overall this list is pretty representative of the best you'll find.
I've italicized the leader in each category. Our Liriano leads in xFIP and the guaranteed-to-regress HR/9, but he's very close to the lead in a number of other categories.
Recently, LEN III pointed out that Liriano has never pitched more than the 136.2 Major League innings he pitched last year in one season. It's a valid argument, particularly for those who would argue that All-Star games should host players who would put the best numbers up over an entire season and are expecting some regression from Liriano. Some regression is likely to come, if only in the area of home runs.
With that, I'll leave the discussion to you. Liriano has had a great start to 2010, but here's the question: does he deserve to start the 2010 All-Star game?