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F-Bomb 2.0: How close is Francisco Liriano to the 2006 version?

Jun 14, 2010, 2:44 PM EDT

Francisco Liriano has reemerged as an elite pitcher this year
and his
latest masterpiece
came Friday night against the Braves, with 11
strikeouts and zero walks in eight innings of one-run ball. His gem
versus Atlanta marked the second straight start in which Liriano has
allowed just one run while racking up double-digit strikeouts, and
overall this season he’s 6-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 87/21 K/BB ratio in 80.2 innings spread over 12 starts.

Now around four years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery Liriano has clearly
re-established himself as an ace, but because he was the ace
prior to going under the knife the temptation will always be there to
compare what he’s doing now to the 2006 version that eviscerated the
league as a 22-year-old rookie.

Thanks to abundance of information available
at Fan Graphs
, we can get a pretty good idea of how Liriano in 2010
stacks up to Liriano in 2006 …

Let’s start from the top, with
his fastball
:

FASTBALL          2006     2010
Velocity 94.7 93.5
Percentage 43.6 50.7
Runs per 100 +0.13 +0.50

Liriano in 2006 threw his fastball an average of 94.7 miles per hour,
but his velocity has dipped to 93.5 miles per hour this season. While
that still ranks seventh in the league, a decline of 1.2 miles per hour
is a significant drop in velocity. However, despite Liriano’s fastball
being slower he’s thrown it 16.2 percent more often and the pitch has
also been more effective, rating 0.50 runs above average per 100
offerings compared to 0.13 runs above average per 100 in 2006.

In other words, Liriano’s fastball has gotten worse but he’s gotten
better at throwing it, which is natural for a pitcher as he gains more
experience and also a credit to the work he’s done on the long road back
from surgery. Obviously it would be great if Liriano threw 95 mph
again, but having better command of the pitch at 93.5 mph can actually
be even better. Now let’s take a similar look at
his slider
:

SLIDER            2006     2010
Velocity 87.7 85.0
Percentage 37.6 32.6
Runs per 100 +3.47 +2.71

Surgery cost Liriano even more velocity on his slider than his
fastball, with the pitch going from an average of 87.7 mph in 2006 to
85.0 mph this year. Not only did his 87.7 mph slider lead the league in
2006, no one else even cracked 87.0. This year his slider velocity is
13th in the league and unlike with the fastball he hasn’t been able to
compensate by throwing it better. He’s relied on the slider 13.2 percent
less and the pitch has been 21.9 percent less effective.

Of course, less effective is a relative term. His slider has gone
from +3.47 runs per 100 pitches in 2006 to +2.71 runs per 100 pitches
this year, which is a big drop. Yet even at 21.9 percent less effective
than it was before surgery Liriano’s slider has been the second-best in
the AL. That shows just how devastating his slider was in 2006, but also
that, as Chipper Jones put
it after facing him Friday
, he still throws “some disappearing” and
“Randy Johnson-type” sliders.

CHANGEUP          2006     2010
Velocity 83.5 84.8
Percentage 18.7 16.7
Runs per 100 +2.82 -0.99

Liriano’s changeup was underrated in 2006 as everyone focused on his
mid-90s fastball and ridiculous slider, but it ranked as one of the best
in the league at +2.82 runs per 100 pitches. Since coming back from
surgery Liriano’s changeup velocity has actually risen by 1.3 mph, but
that’s not a good thing and when combined with a 1.2 mph decline in
fastball velocity equals a much less effective weapon. In fact, his
changeup has gone from great in 2006 to bad in 2010.

In terms of individual pitches, Liriano’s fastball is slower but
ultimately more effective, his slider is slower and less effective but
still an incredibly dominant offering, and his changeup is faster but
significantly less effective. Now let’s move on to Liriano’s actual
results
with a year-to-year comparison of his ERA, Expected
Fielding Independent Pitching
, strikeout rate, walk rate, and
ground-ball percentage:

YEAR      ERA     xFIP     SO/9     BB/9      GB%
2006 2.16 2.35 10.7 2.4 55.3
2010 2.90 2.95 9.7 2.4 49.1

Those stats are all more or less what you’d expected based on the
individual pitch changes. He’s lost one strikeout per nine innings and
has induced 11 percent fewer ground balls, which makes sense given the
drops in velocity and slider ridiculousness. However, his walk rate has
remained constant at 2.4 batters per nine innings, which can seemingly
be linked to Liriano’s improved fastball command canceling out the
decline in raw, blow-it-past-everyone stuff.

What made Liriano so amazing in 2006 is that he combined an
incredible number of strikeouts with tons of ground balls, which is the
perfect recipe for a pitcher. Surgery has cost him about 10 percent of
both his strikeouts and ground balls, but Liriano still ranks third in
the league in strikeout rate and 12th in ground-ball rate. In terms of
overall effectiveness, he’s gone from a 2.16 ERA and 2.35 xFIP
in 2006 to a 2.90 ERA and 2.95 xFIP this season.

Here’s an
even further breakdown of his results
, based on strikes, swings,
and contact:

YEAR     ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2006 54.8 47.8 65.4 64.5 76.0 27.5 35.3
2010 47.5 46.9 75.5 63.3 87.1 32.2 54.8

Liriano has actually thrown 13.3 percent fewer pitches in the strike
zone (ZONE) this season, which perhaps could be chalked up to his no
longer being able to simply overpower everyone with strikes. Opponents
are swinging (SWNG) at basically the same number of pitches, hacking at
48 percent in 2006 and 47 percent this season, but they’re making
contact (CONT) on those swings 15.4 percent more often this year.

On pitches inside the zone opponents are swinging (Z-SW) at the same
rate as 2006, but are making 15 percent more contact (Z-CN). On pitches
outside the zone opponents are swinging (O-SW) 17 percent more often and
also making 55 percent more contact (O-CN). I’m not smart enough to
know for sure, but it seems like the slider going from ridiculous to
merely excellent and the changeup going from excellent to bad could
explain the swing and contact changes.

Add it all up and Liriano clearly isn’t the same pitcher he was
before elbow surgery. His velocity is down, his slider and changeup
aren’t as good, he’s getting 10 percent fewer strikeouts and ground
balls, and hitters are having a much easier time making contact against
him on pitches in and out of the strike zone. He’s also relying less on
his slider and more on his fastball, likely due in part to the injury
risk of the slider and in part to his improved command of the fastball.

It seems clear that the phenom who toyed with the league in 2006 is
simply gone forever, but the good news is that Liriano was so
spectacularly awesome then that even this post-surgery version with
obvious declines in numerous areas is one of the elite pitchers in all
of baseball. His combination of strikeouts and ground balls still ranks
among the best in the league and his raw stuff is still capable of
overpowering hitters, as the Braves saw first hand Friday.

Oh, and the other good news? F-Bomb 2.0 is still five months from his
27th birthday.

  1. Derek - Jun 14, 2010 at 3:33 PM

    Some errors in this piece. “On pitches outside the zone opponents are swinging (O-SW) 17 percent more often and also making 55 percent more contact (O-CN).” From what I understand about O-CN, it doesn’t represent an increase, but a total. His 54.8% O-CN doesn’t represent a comparison to 0% in 2006, but a 35.3% mark. Thus hitters aren’t making “55% more contact” than in 2006, they’re just making contact 55% of the time on balls outside the strike zone.

  2. TMW - Jun 14, 2010 at 4:04 PM

    I notice he’s really sharp when the weather is nice, but mediocre in cold weather. I find this concerning for October.

  3. Bill@TDS - Jun 14, 2010 at 5:13 PM

    Derek:
    O-CN increased by 19.5 percentage points, which is 55% of 35.3. So if they were making contact 35.3% of the time and now are making contact 54.8% of the time, that’s an increase of 55 percent. I assume that’s what he was getting at. Actually I know it was, because the O-SW percentages work the same way (it increased by just 4.7 percentage points, but that represents a 17% increase over the 2006 rate of 27.5%).
    TMW:
    Liriano was the AL Pitcher of the Month for April…

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