A Dash of Truth About Francisco Liriano and the Twins

MINNEAPOLIS - OCTOBER 06: Francisco Liriano #47 of the Minnesota Twins delivers a pitch in the second inning against the New York Yankees during game one of the ALDS on October 6 2010 at Target Field in Minneapolis Minnesota. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

This has made for some interesting conversation this morning. I've made no secret that I'm a fan of Joe Christensen's work, but let's break down a few of his points, shall we? Is what he says anything more than posturing?

Christensen's report is true, obviously. He has his sources, and of course Tom Pelissero recently confirmed the rumor. But to cast a doubt on Liriano's potential, or the numbers he put up last season, comes off as posturing.

For all the talk about how Liriano is learning to trust his fastball and changeup, the lefthander relied heavily on his slider again last season. According to FanGraphs.com, 38 percent of the pitches he threw as a rookie in 2006 were sliders. That number dipped to 27 percent during his abysmal 2009 season and returned to 34 percent last year.

Not once in this post will I argue that Francisco Liriano isn't an injury risk, because he is. In fact, I think that's the only reason the Twins aren't interested in signing him long-term, but we'll get to that in a little while. First, I want to tackle this statement from Christensen.

The reason why Liriano threw his slider so often last season is because it was the best slider in Major League Baseball. At least it was according to FanGraphs. Liriano accumulated more value with his slider over 2010 than anyone. And when the fastball wasn't accumulating as much value as you'd like and the changeup is, let's be honest, still a work-in-progress, what do we expect Liriano to do? Throw the best slider in the Majors less often? And the best association to draw between the slider and '06/'10 isn't the injury factor, it's the fact that 2006 was the last time that slider was anywhere nearly as devastating.

If we're worried about injuries, all it takes is one pitch. Liriano threw an average of 97 pitches per game in his 31 starts last season, which would mean reducing his slider selection comes down to a few pitches per outing. Doing the quick math, at 97 pitches per start:

27% slider selection: 26 sliders per game
34% slider selection: 33 sliders per game

How about per inning? In 2010, Liriano averaged 16.2 pitches per inning.

27% slider selection: 4.4 sliders per inning
34% slider selection: 5.5 sliders per inning

Is reducing the number of sliders Liriano throws by one slider per inning going to have that much of an effect on his injury risk? If there's worry about a cumulative effect, and I'm sure there is, slider reduction needs to be at a much higher rate than one per inning. So let's not pretend that the seven percent jump in sliders is any kind of a mitigating factor here.

Liriano might seem like the closest thing the Twins have to a true No. 1 pitcher, but is he really that close?

Yes. He is the closest thing the Twins have to a true number one starter. There's no question about it. Even when he's off his game, he's still the only guy who has the capability to go out there over the course of a full season and put the numbers together that equal the best in the league. Strikeout rates, walk rates, FIP, xFIP, ERA, velocity, "stuff", home run rate, ground ball tendencies, the list goes on--including wins above replacement, in which Liriano's 6.0 WAR was eighth among starting pitchers in baseball last season.

Yes. He is that close. He just has to stay healthy.

After opening the season as the No. 5 starter, Liriano had several dominant games, including June 11, when he struck out 11 Atlanta batters over eight innings in a 2-1 victory. But in his final 20 starts, including the postseason, he didn't finish the eighth inning once.

That's true, actually. If you want the full story, however, also consider this:

  • Obviously, the last start before Christensen's arbitrary cutoff was an eight-inning (one-run, 11-strikeout) performance by Liriano, on June 11. By that time he'd already pitched 16 consecutive months without an extended rest due to his activity over the winter of 2009 - 2010.
  • In those 20 starts that Christensen mentions, including the post-season, Liriano finished at least seven innings nine times and logged ten quality starts.
  • Liriano still managed a 13% whiff rate, an opponent OPS of .697 and a very unlucky .331 batting average on balls in play relative to his line drive percentage (16%).

So, yes, he struggled...relative to who he was in the first half of the season. But he was still pretty damn good.

Conclusions and Some Hard Truth

The Minnesota Twins organization is notoriously responsible. When they extended Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn, neither had been through injuries as severe as Tommy John surgery. And Liriano, while an emotionally and spiritually good story after coming through on potential we hadn't seen in three full seasons, doesn't have a track record you can rely on.

That's the bottom line, and along with the alleged demands of three years, $39 million for an extension, are strong reasons why the front office won't extend him this winter. Multi-year contracts are always a risk, expensive multi-year contracts are bigger risks, expensive multi-year contracts to pitchers are an even bigger risk, and an expensive multi-year contract to a pitcher for one great season is a huge risk...and not a responsible one.

Christensen says Liriano isn't the Twins' long-term plans, but I think it's easy to forget how quickly the fortunes of fickle fate can shift. If Liriano comes out this year and simply duplicates what he did in 2010, exploring a multi-year contract suddenly becomes that responsible thing to do. Looking at how payroll shakes out over the next few seasons, saying "the Twins can't afford Liriano" is incorrect. They certainly could afford him, and if they like what they see in 2011 then there's no reason to think he wouldn't be in their long-term plans going forward.

But for now, unfortunately, the reality is that exploring trade options for Francisco Liriano is "the responsible thing to do". It's turning into a mantra here, but it's true. Baseball is a business, and while it can be hard to differentiate between being a fan of a player on your team and being a fan of the team itself, the organization constantly has to evaluate the value of their commodities. And if the Twins are concerned about his health, or if decide they can sell high on Liriano and get enough value in return to make it worth their time, then...well...

...it's the responsible thing to do.

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