Well that certainly was exciting. More exciting still, the pitch f/x data suggest Liriano was indeed throwing very differently last night than he has this season (with the very intriguing exception of game one: see conclusion). Indeed, he appears per pitch f/x data to have had stuff resembling what he had last year, if not even a little better.
To be clear: the velocity is about the same as it's been throughout 2011. It's the movement that's n'other class.
The H-move and V-move measurements pitch f/x provide can be a little counter-intuitive, so I figured some words about them might be necessary. Skip to "after the jump" if you understand pitch f/x numbers in general.
(By the way, I mainly used the graphs at the bottom of Liriano's fangraphs pitch f/x page for this, although I also used the single game charts to I.D. the extremes of awesome to which his change-up got at times last night.)
Basically, H-move and V-move measure the break on the pitched ball relative to a ball punched out of a theoretical pneumatic cannon (or whatever) with no spin whatsoever, thrown from the same release point at the same initial angle. The last bit is important to internalize if you're going to believe the data, as the ball is always thrown from a couple of feet off the side of the rubber starting across the pitcher's body, angled downwards. Forgetting that and imagining a ball thrown literally straight from the middle of the pitcher's mound to home plate, parallel to the ground, makes the data impossible to believe/understand.
A fastball's "h-movement" number is always back towards the pitcher's throwing hand (think about the "sideways component" of a normal 45 degree arm angle and the backspin of the seams coming off the fingertips and it makes sense). A two seam fastball gets more h-movement (run-back) than a four seamer: good running two-seamers often move 10 inches or more "backwards". For example, in 2010 Liriano averaged 9.3 inches of run-back with what was then his primary fastball, the two-seamer.
This next bit might be weird to accept: hard breaking balls (e.g. sliders) often don't actually break sideways in the way they are perceived to, but actually simple run-back toward the pitching-hand side a lot less. Good ones break, although some pitchers' high H-break numbers are offset by relative flatness (V-movement, see below). Last year, Liriano's slider had half an inch of true break on average, although in many games he had 2 inches or more of break working.
Changeups move horizontally like two-seamers, running back to the pitching hand side quite a lot.
Vertical movement is at least as important as horizontal movement. Four-seam fastballs (and, consequently, any fastball the pitch f/x software identifies, rightly or not, as a 4 seam fastball - you cannot always trust pitch f/x's classifications of fastballs, especially in years past) have a ton of "rise" - 10 inches or more is common - relative to the theoretical spinless ball. A great rising fastball is believed to be what allows dominant closers to consistently post high pop-up rates.
Although a "sinker" is generally just a two-seam fastball, two-seamers don't actually sink relative to a theoretical spinless pitch projected at the same initial angle: they just rise a lot less. (Of course, two-seamers do actually sink relative to the earth, thanks to gravity. They would just hit the ground a little sooner if not for the backspin on them.) For example, Nick Blackburn's world-beating (ahem) sinker has about 5 1/2 inches of rise on it relative to a spinless baseball, but the effect of this in conjunction with gravity and the extra h-movement (run-back or tail) on his two-seamer is that it dives down and back relative to where a "regular" four seam fastball would be, thus it "sinks".
Change-ups have a lot less rise than four-seamers: generally a V-Movement number of an inch or two less than a two-seam fastball. Again, though, they don't actually break downwards compared to a spinless pitch (i.e. they don't have top-spin), despite perception. Unless they're really, really wicked (hint, hint).
Sliders have very little rise on them, even less than change-ups, and this is what makes them appear to drop off so dramatically. But they also don't always actually net out to significantly negative V-Movement number due the difficulty of putting topspin on a ball thrown that hard. Typically. Even Liriano averaged out to 0.1 inches of rise during his dominant 2010, although he had negative V-Movement (true sink) in 17 of his starts.
So what about Liriano last night?
AFTER THE JUMP
Pitch F/X showed Liriano using his two-seamer as his primary fastball last night for the first time since the first game of the this season - a fact to which I will return. Other than said first start of 2011, when was this also the case?
Last year. Last year Liriano sounds like a good thing, right? It is.
Forgetting about what the fastball actually was/what we should call it for a minute, let's look at what Liriano's "primary fastball" (whatever it actually was) did last night, this season and last year. Except for game one, his primary fastball this season has been flat (i.e. had an ordinary V-Mov number of 9 inches - neither high enough to appear like a wicked "rising" fastball nor low enough to be a "good sinking fastball"). It's had some decent run-back, although a bit less than last year's primary fastball, but without downward bite or dominant velocity-plus-rise it hasn't been a very effective pitch.
Last season, his primary fastball was harder and had good effective-sink: only 5.4 inches of rising V-Movement, just like Blackburn's sinker (but harder). And last night? Well looky, looky: against the Mariners Liriano's primary fastball had a V-movement of only 4 inches! That is a WICKED sinker at 91.5 mph. Again: 4 inches of Vertical movement on a fastball is, in reality, MORE effective movement than 8-9 inches. It is "closer to getting topspin", if that helps it make sense to you. The only thing lacking vs. last year is velocity, but if he can post that kinda of sharp downward (i.e. less upward) movement he can sacrifice the lost MPH and probably be a better pitcher for it.
So he succeeded because of an improved fastball? Only in part. His slider and change-ups were also back to vintage form.
This year Liriano's slider has not had quite the same amount of horizontal movement as last year. He was okay in his first two starts and in the no-hitter, but other than that his slider was running back an inch or two rather than breaking. Not terribly, but not good. The slider's vertical movement this season, though, had been a total DISASTER (except in the first game of the season, to be discussed below). Instead of a mere tenth of an inch of true rise on average like last year (a number that was actually skewed upwards by a small handful of starts in which the slider just wasn't biting at all), his slider this year (after game one) had a good 3-4 inches of rise on it. In other words: it's been flat.
Last night his slider had true topspin: true sink of a fraction of an inch and true left to right movement of better than an inch. This is actually slightly better movement than he averaged last season! Again, the numbers are in absolute terms smaller than they've been this season, but with pitch f/x numbers big does NOT always equal "good". Smaller = more "effective movement" in many cases.
It gets A LOT better: A glance at the aforelinked-to single game graph shows that three pitches that were probably actually fastballs were classified as sliders. Throw these extreme (I mean: they're nowhere NEAR his other sliders on the movement graph) outliers out and his real-life slider looks to have in fact averaged about two inches of true sink and at least two if not three inches of true break, making it more than equal to last year's incredibly effective pitch!
Finally, Liriano's change-up was a BEAST last night. His changeup had horizontal run like a two-seamer, which hasn't really been a problem this season, but it had rise (or rather, lacked it) of a totally different class than he's been working with (since game one, see below): Last season (when he was great) Liriano's change measured 3.4 inches of V-Movement. If you've been paying attention, you know this means it had GREAT "effective sink" for a non-breaking pitch. This season, excluding game one, he was averaging around 7-8 inches of rise, meaning his change-up was a flat, stinky, P.O.S. Last night? A tiny 2 inches of true rise and thus one of the five best one-game sinking changeup performances in his post-surgery career. Indeed, a handful of his changeups actually had negative V-Movement, which is incredibly hard to do and incredibly effective if you can do it. The only significantly better sinking change he ever had in a post-surgery start was (transition to Gardenhire/Anderson trashing coming)... in GAME ONE OF THIS SEASON, when the pitch almost averaged negative V-Movement (i.e. true sink).
NOW I SUMMARIZE AND CONCLUDE BY PREDICTABLY TRASHING PROF. GARDENHIRE, HIS COACHING STAFF AND THE TWINS WAY
Okay, so good news: Liriano, save for the velocity, appeared last night to have stuff like he had last season. Indeed, his slider, changeup and primary fastball had BETTER movement numbers (which counter-intuitively are sometimes "smaller" pitch f/x numbers) than they had last year, and if they continued to move like this he can dominate sitting 1.5 MPH lower. So everything's sunshine and roses, right?
It is no secret that I loathe Ron Gardenhire and don't think much of Rick Anderson either. It is no secret that the Twins coaching staff began bagging on Liriano during spring training and kept it up beginning with his "poor results" first start of the year, harping on him to adopt the "Twins Way" and pitch to contact (i.e. throw nothing happening pitches over the plate and rely on a sub-par defense to turn balls in play into outs). So he did. He switched to a far less lively, less biting, easier to control four-seam fastball, despite succeeding wildly last year with a two-seamer as his primary fastball.
What's more, I believe the data shows that he wholly changed the way he pitched, essentially "backing off" in an effort to not walk anybody. Predictably, pitching in a way that was wholly foreign to him did not achieve results.
What do I mean? If you look at the data points for game one of this season, they show that Liriano had AWESOME downward bite on his slider, changeup and primary (for that game, two-seam) fastball. Indeed, in game one of 2011 his slider, changeup and primary fastball's downward movement numbers were.. wait for it... THE BEST ONE-GAME NUMBERS OF HIS POST-SURGERY CAREER. Yep, for each of those pitches. And yes, his slider had true left to right break. Watching the game, I thought his pitches looked nasty and hated to see him dressed down. But he walked five guys and got pilloried and the rest is history.
I believe there is a significant possibility that we are now seeing what we should have seen in start 2 or 3 or 4 had Liriano been left to pitch in the manner he wants to pitch, more or less - which produced measurably, demonstrably WICKED, electric stuff in game one. But instead of being allowed to find his control over said electric stuff on its terms, so to speak (again: the problem in start one of 2011 was unassailably control, not stuff), he was forced to "back off and throw strikes," resulting in way less movement on everything and correspondingly ugly results.
I concede that it's possible that Liriano changed NOTHING after game one despite being told to change by Gardenhire and Anderson, that he therefore simply sucked "on his own" until figuring it out last night, etc. Given media reports, however, and Gardenhire/Anderson quotes and the DicknBert talking points coming into start two and thereafter, it seems clear to me that the coaching staff and Twins apparatchiks were pleased that Liriano was indeed listening to them like a good little Twins camper. And in listening to them he sucked. Last night, throwing HIS stuff a la Game One, he dominated. You do the "math".