While the Minnesota Twins are buried at the bottom of the AL Central standings, few players have more riding on the rest of the 2012 season than Francisco Liriano. The 28-year-old lefty hits free agency this winter with an uneven resume that includes nearly a K per inning but also an Oliver Perez-esque walk rate and a middling career ERA+ of 98. He can look unhittable and bound for the next bus to Rochester within the same at-bat, much less start or season.
Liriano's walk year got off to a disastrous start, as he walked nearly as many hitters than he punched out, got taken deep often and was briefly banished to the bullpen. But, since returning to the rotation in late May, Liriano has been a different pitcher. His whiffs are up, his walks are down and his homer rate has all but disappeared:
First Five Starts (April 7-May 7): 26.2 IP, 7.1 K/9, 6.4 BB/9, 2.02 HR/9
Six Starts Since Returning to Rotation (May 30-June 25): 37.1 IP, 9.6 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 0.24 HR/9
All three of those happy trends hearken back to Liriano keeping the ball down. Check out his pitch location before he was booted to the bullpen, and since returning to the starting five:
To open the year, Liriano threw about 46 percent of his pitches low in the strike zone. Following his return to the rotation after spending some time in relief purgatory, Liriano has located 54 percent of his pitches down. That, in turn, has led to a spike in ground ball rate:
Liriano induced grounders 41 percent of the time before losing his starting spot. Since getting it back, he's burning worms 54 percent of the time. That's a good way to cut down on the whiplash from serving up some many homers.
Keeping the ball down has other benefits for Liriano as well. He's getting more chases on the low pitches he throws (35 percent since returning to the rotation, up from 31 percent prior) and hitters are swinging through more of those pitches at the knees. Here's his contact rate by pitch location from April 7 to May 7, and then from May 30 through last night's seven-inning gem versus the White Sox:
Liriano got batters to miss 36 percent of the time they offered at a low pitch before going to the 'pen. Since returning to the rotation, batters are coming up empty half the time they swing at a pitch Liriano keeps down in the zone.
So, which is the "real" Francisco Liriano? The wild, gopher ball machine throwing a 91-92 MPH fastball and a flat low-80s slider to start the year or the dominant lefty sitting 93 MPH with a wicked mid-80s breaker we've seen since late May? That's a question that will soon cost GMs sleep.