Francisco Liriano believes that one's soul is stolen through one's smile when photographed. As such, this is as happy as he gets. Deal with it.
If there was ever a Dr. Jekyll of Major League Baseball in recent history, he may have spent the better part of the last decade sporting #47 for the Twins. Francisco Liriano's back-and-forth pendulum act has teased us since his dominant debut in 2006. From Tommy John surgery to last year's shoulder woes and maddeningly inconsistent mechanics, Liriano's down seasons have been crushing, while that stellar rookie campaign and a brilliant rebound in 2010 inspire eternal hope.
His 2012 Spring Training has been a complete 180-degree turn from that maligned 2011 season; can he sustain it? I think so. My reasoning after the jump.
- Conditioning. Prior to his dominant 2010 (which I do feel was dominant despite the 3.62 ERA -- he posted a 3.4 K/BB ratio with sub-3.00 marks in FIP, xFIP, and SIERA while inducing 53.6% ground balls and allowing only nine homers), Liriano pitched in the Dominican Winter League and drew rave reviews. He failed to do so in 2011, and beyond that, didn't even follow the offseason workout plan the Twins created for him. He reported being healthy after pitching in the DWL this winter. And, despite the fact that he struggled, he came into Spring Training with some innings under his belt and we've yet to hear anything about how he mismanaged himself in the offseason.
- Velocity. In Liriano's best seasons, he's averaged 94.7mph (2006) and 93.7mph (2010) on his fastball. His other seasons have featured average velocities of 90.9 (2007), 91.7 (2008), and 91.8 (2010). Phil Mackey noted last week that Liriano's fastball velocity sat at 92mph in his March 18 start, and jumped to 94 at times. That he was already sitting at 92 and jumping to 94 would imply that his fastball averaged somewhere around the 92.5mph range that start, and with several more starts to continue building arm strength prior to, and early on during the season, there's a real chance for Frankie to get back to the 93+ range with his fastball. An increase in fastball velocity makes the pitch itself more difficult to hit, obviously, but also increases the effectiveness of his slider. Liriano threw his slider at roughly the same speeds in 2010 and 2011 (85.9 and 85.5, respectively), but his fastball velocity dropped 1.9mph. Fangraphs valued that slider as 0.92 runs above average per 100 pitches in 2011. That's respectable, but a noticeable drop from the 1.65 mark we saw from the 2010 slider that was paired with a more potent fastball.
- Command. Much has been made of Liriano's stellar K/BB ratio in this spring. Spring ERAs don't often tell a complete story, but the fact that Liriano has walked only three while fanning 23 in 18 innings does speak volumes about his seemingly rediscovered ability to locate pitches. The Spring Training stats section of the Twins' web site archives data from several years back, allowing us to gain some historical context. Liriano's K/BB ratio currently sits at a stellar 7.67. His 2011 mark was a pedestrian 2.55, while 2010 boasted a fantastic 6.0 mark. In 2009? 2.25. How about 2006? 7.0 (albeit in a seven-inning sample that's small even by Spring Training standards). Still, there's definite evidence to suggest a correlation between Liriano's ability to command his pitches in Spring Training and his full season results. Simply put, the good Liriano can get ahead of hitters with a solid fastball and finish them off with a dominant slider or change-up. The bad Liriano falls behind hitters and either puts them on base with free passes or is hit hard when forced to throw an underwhelming fastball that hitters can sit on.
It's going to take a lot more than an effective Francisco Liriano to turn this team around and give them a real shot at contention, but it'd be a big step in the right direction. Fangraphs valued Liriano at a paltry one win above replacement in 2011, while he was worth a superb six wins in 2010. If his stellar K/BB ratio in 2012 is the harbinger of another great season, the Twins should see significant improvement thanks to his dominance. And if the rest of the team falters, you can rest assured that they'll still have one of the most sought after trade chips come July 31 if Liriano is dealing as he did in the seasons where he was more Jekyll than he was Hyde.
Steve Adams also writes for MLBTradeRumors.com, RotoAuthority.com, and MLB.com Fantasy Baseball. You can follow him on Twitter: @Adams_Steve