Last night, Francisco Liriano pitched the first game of the best of nine Dominican Winter League Championship Series. It was perhaps his final start there before turning his attention to spring training, and was his worst performance in about a month:
5 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
Pathetic, huh? Most pitchers would take that outing every time, but it pales in comparison to this body of work:
12/05: 3.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/10: 3.2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 5 K
12/16: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/26: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 3 K
01/02: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 7 K
01/07: 6.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 8 K
01/13: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 6 K
Add it all up, and you get this:
38.2 IP, 24 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 7 BB, 47 K, 0.47 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 1.6 BB/9, 10.9 K/9, 1.33 G/F
Now, compare those rate stats with what he did against similar competition at the upper levels in 2005:
AA: 3.64 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 0.7 HR/9, 3.1 BB/9, 10.8 K/9,
AAA: 1.78 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 0.4 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 11.1 K/9
And his awesome, abbreviated 2006:
2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 0.7 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 10.7 K/9, 2.37 G/F
And his not so good 2009:
5.80 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 1.4 HR/9, 4.0 BB/9, 8.0 K/9, 0.98 G/F
These are the elements of the game that are within the pitcher's control: HR, BB, K and whether they allow grounders or flies. Liriano, when he's good, keeps the ball in the yard, keeps the free passes to a minimum, strikes out more than a batter per IP and gets more grounders than flies. For whatever reason, he was out of whack last year and failed to live up to his potential on all those counts. He also allowed a higher than typical BABIP and stranded fewer runners than one would expect. Based on my observations of the games he pitched last season, I would summarize his performance like this: he struggled to command his fastball, particularly with men on base. That led him into too many hitter's counts, and he got drilled. The numbers back that up.
I don't have any observations to bring to Liriano's DWL performance, but the numbers tell the story: He was in total command of his fastball, consistently putting himself in pitcher's counts, and the hitters were left to flail meekly at his arsenal of secondary pitches. The DWL isn't a sluggers league, but Liriano allowed only 2 2B in those 7 GS - no 3B, no HR. The 2 ER he allowed during the campaign came in his first inning. Were they the result of jitters? Rust? Whatever the cause, he immediately made the adjustment, finishing on a string of 37.2 consecutive IP without allowing an ER.
What does this mean for 2010? Certainly, the average MLB hitter is much better than the average DWL hitter, so we can expect Liriano's numbers to all come down from these other-worldly heights. The BABIP will probably go up to around his career average of .310 (it was .258 in the DWL). He'll probably allow more BB, some HR, and strike out fewer. But I'm satisfied that he's corrected his troubles from last season, so I'll make this prediction: Liriano will be a better starting pitcher next season than Scott Baker. And I expect Baker to pitch all season the way he did from June on last year. Which was pretty darn well.
So go get one more IF, Mr. Smith, and sign Joe Mauer to his extension, then kick back and enjoy the season. The rotation is in good shape.