Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Breaks: Liriano

Perhaps no other Twins player has caused the fans' expectations to yo-yo around more than Francisco Liriano. During his dominant rookie season in 2006, he looked like he would be the best starter in the league for years to come. Then his TJS cost him all of 2007, a few mph of velocity and a lot of control, all of which showed up in a disastrous trio of starts in April of 2008. Our expectations suitably lowered, he appeared to find himself again, dominating AAA for 3 months before returning to the Twins for a strong final 2 months of that season. Now expecting a continuation of that success, we were disappointed to see Liriano struggle with his command throughout 2009, posting career worsts in WHIP, HR/9 and BB/9. That performance, along with Brian Duensing's surprising effectiveness down the stretch, left many speculating that Liriano would most likely land in the bullpen in 2010.

Then came his staggeringly dominant stint in the Dominican Winter League. By his 3rd GS in mid-December, things were already starting to look good, as his biggest problems from the regular season, a 4.3 BB/9 and 1.4 HR/9, utterly evaporated. With each start, he reinforced that his command had returned, culminating in a 5 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 10 K performance in the deciding game of the DWL championship series. Anyone with ESPN360 could watch the telecast and see for themselves the devastating bite of his slider, the radar gun lighting up to 96 mph on his fastball. Not only does his command appear to be back, his stuff looks like it's back, too.

Now, the crucial question: How much of this spectacular DWL line:

48.2 IP, 32 H, 4 ER, 0 HR, 7 BB, 64 K, 0.74 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 1.3 BB/9, 11.8 K/9, 1.55 G/F

will Liriano be able to bring to his MLB opponents in 2010? I think it's probably safe to say that the average DWL hitter is about a replacement level MLB hitter - for every Nelson Cruz down there, there's a has-been and a never-will-be. So any competent MLB pitcher should be able to carve up that league. That in itself should be a comfort to Twins fans (hey, Liriano is a competent pitcher!) after last year. But Liriano didn't just carve them up, he annihilated them. Never mind the WHIP for a second - he allowed 0 HR and only a couple of XBH in nearly 50 IP. A K/BB ratio of better than 9/1! That tells me that Liriano is a lot more than merely competent.

Certainly big league lineups will be able to do more damage against him. More guys will lay off sliders in the dirt, raising his BB rate and dropping his K rate. A few guys will square him up and take him yard, raising his WHIP and HR rate. But his numbers in those metrics - factors that are considered to be largely within the pitcher's control - were higher in his outstanding rookie season, too:

2.4 BB/9, 10.7 K/9, 0.7 HR/9, 1.00 WHIP

So he can have a lot more trouble than he had in the DWL and still have an amazing season. But I'm not ready to predict that he'll be quite that good, so how about this: Let's say Liriano is able to return to something like allowing <3.0 BB/9, <1.0 HR/9, >8.0 K/9 and a WHIP < 1.25. That's basically a 25% step down from his otherworldly 2006. Or, put another way, it's predicting that Liriano in 2010 will be at least 80% as good as he was in 2006. And that's still a pretty good place to be. Among pitchers with 100+ IP in 2009, there are 9 guys who met those criteria:

Tim Lincecum
Justin Verlander
Jon Lester
Javier Vazquez
Zach Greinke
Wandy Rodriguez
Josh Johnson
Adam Wainwright
Felix Hernandez

All of those guys are either #1 or #2 starters. 2 of them won the Cy Young award, and 4 others received votes. Anybody still think Duensing should be the frontrunner for the final slot in the rotation?

PECOTA currently predicts Liriano will pitch 156 IP with 3.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 7.4 K/9 and a WHIP of 1.39, resulting in 2.1 WARP. My prediction for Liriano probably most closely matches Lester's 2009, since he is also a LHP for an AL contender entering his age-26 season. Lester likely had it tougher than Liriano will, playing in the AL East in a home park that greatly favors RH hitters. His numbers, brought to the AL Central and Target Field (we don't know how it will play, but it doesn't look like it'll be too easy on righties), could result in even fewer runs and more wins. In any event, Lester earned 6.1 WARP last year (adjusted for park and season).

If Liriano meets my expectations and proves himself to be even 4/5 the pitcher he was as a rookie, the Twins are suddenly a 90-91 win club, with a front-end starter who matches up with just about anyone else's. Whatever other breaks the Twins get during this season, Liriano's potential return to dominance could be the most important.

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