A Status Update on the Francisco Liriano Experience

Francisco Liriano’s most recent outing for the Pittsburgh Pirates ended with eight consecutive balls and the bases loaded. The Pirates won that game, 12-1, over the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Liriano allowed just one earned runs on two hits, but the outing was nevertheless troubling for the 32-year-old lefty. Troubling because he walked five and struck out two, marking the third time already this season that Liriano walked more batters than he struck out, matching his total of starts which met that criteria over the previous two full seasons combined. Coming on the heels of three solid seasons in Pittsburgh, Liriano’s been below-replacement level by FIP-WAR, his walk and home-run rates at a career-high, his strikeout numbers the lowest in five years.

I’ve had something of a fixation on Liriano for a while now, due to the extreme nature of his pitching style. Coming into this season, he’d thrown the lowest rate of pitches inside the strike zone of any starter during a two-year stretch, while somehow also getting batters to chase those pitches at an extreme rate. Despite his approach — essentially inviting hitters to get themselves out over and over again — representing one that was theoretically easy to beat, hitters continuously failed to make the adjustment, which actually embodied a league-wide trend in MLB over the last eight years.

With Liriano struggling this season, this naturally becomes the first thing to check. Is Liriano still working outside the zone still often? Are batters still flailing away, even though they should know what’s coming?

The answers are yes and no. Liriano’s zone rate hasn’t changed — according to PITCHf/x, it’s under 40% for a third consecutive year, and is the second-lowest in baseball. But the hitters appear to have finally adjusted. The simple fix always seemed for batters to simply stop swinging. Lo and behold, Liriano’s swing rate against is currently at a career-low, and the opposition’s chase rate against his out-of-zone offerings is down from 33% last year to 27% this year, the largest such drop of any qualified pitcher in the league. In Tuesday’s start against the Diamondbacks, he induced swings on just 31% of his pitches, the lowest rate in any Liriano start in more than eight years.

And in fact, it’s not just Liriano. That league-wide trend about which I wrote in the offseason has reversed itself through the first quarter of 2016. After eight consecutive years of pitchers throwing more and more pitches outside the zone and hitters chasing a higher and higher percentage of those pitches, the league’s O-Swing% has finally taken a step back. Swings as a whole are down across the league, and particularly those against would-be balls.

So that’s that. The league has, at long last, adjusted to extreme out-of-zone pitchers, and with Liriano being the most extreme of them all, he’s suffering the most grave consequences.

Except, there’s more to it than that. There almost always is. While I do think it’s noteworthy that hitters league-wide appear to be adjusting, and that shift almost certainly would have a greater negative impact on Liriano than most, it’s not like his struggles can be chalked up to that entirely. Liriano’s doing some things differently, too, things that are perhaps more convincing in explaining his struggles — and the opposition’s apparent adjustment toward him — than a one percent decrease in league-wide chase rate.

As always, we start by looking at the fastball. Like most of the Pirates’ pitching staff, Liriano relies heavily on a sinking two-seam fastball which he commands almost exclusively to one side of the plate. Liriano throws his two-seamer to the arm-side edge of the zone, running it off the plate against right-handers and in on the hands of lefties.

His two-seam location against right-handed batters, whom he held in check, from 2015:

LirianoSinker_15 copy

When spotted in the inner-most portion of that heatmap, the two-seam is nearly impossible to square up. When Liriano lives with the two-seam where he lived last year, he’s in good shape.

Now, his two-seam location from this year against righties, the source of all his struggles:

LirianoSinker_16 copy

Way too often, Liriano is missing glove-side and up to right-handed batters, and they’re making him pay. Liriano keeps the two-seamer away from righties for a reason: since last year, the average exit velocity on outer-half two-seamers is 88 mph; against inner-half two-seamers, 91 mph. All nine of the homers allowed by Liriano this year have come against righties. Of those nine, six came against pitches on the inner-half of the plate, five on two-seamers. This is where the damage is being done.

And I think there’s a cascading effect with the lack of fastball command that could help explain the drop in effectiveness of the slider in getting batters to chase and whiff. It comes down to sequencing and deception. In 2014, then-Pirates catcher Russell Martin explained to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Travis Sawchik one key reason why Liriano’s slider was so effective.

From Sawchik’s piece:

“Right out of his hand, it looks like a fastball,” Martin said. “You can tell yourself a slider is coming, but your mind is telling you it’s a fastball.”

It makes sense. Setting up pitch Y with pitch X is pitching 101. And particularly in Liriano’s case, when more than 80% of his pitches are fastballs and sliders, location is key. Think about where the slider goes — ideally in the bottom left corner of the strike zone heatmaps above, diving away from lefties and toward the feet of righties. When Liriano’s going good, he plays the glove-side slider off the arm-side fastball perfectly.

That same 2015 two-seam heatmap from before, only with the trajectory of the slider overlaid:

LirianoSlider

Liriano wants to make the slider look like a fastball by starting it out in his most common fastball location, only to have it break away toward the glove side. This deception with the slider is what helps generate so many chases. But when he’s missing up with the fastball as often as he is this year, not only does it make the fastball more hittable, but it makes the slider less believable, and easier for the hitter to lay off.

This is why the pitcher who just gave up five runs blaming “fastball command” in the post-game press conference has become such a cliche: because more often than not, it’s true. A poorly spotted fastball is bad not only for the fastball itself, but for the rest of the arsenal, too. Can part of Liriano’s struggles this year be explained by the scouting report against him being, “Just don’t ever swing”? Yeah, probably. But it seems like, more than that, it’s got to do with the fastball being left up. Those elevated fastballs are easier to square up, and those elevated fastballs mess with Liriano’s sequencing by making the slider easier to recognize. Without command of the two-seamer, the deception is gone. Lose a fastball, and you’ll start to lose other pitches, too.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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zachbuccos
Member
zachbuccos

Good article.

On a note not relating to this article but relating to Francisco Liriano, I’ve been fascinated with his recent development as a hitter. Mainly because he spent so much of his time with us being so apathetic about it, he turned it into an entertaining work of art.

Then in August of last year something happened and he began hitting and hasn’t stopped. Since that point, he’s batting over .350 and has become of the better hitting pitchers in baseball. It’s clearly a skill he’s always had and not something he suddenly learned.

It makes you wonder, are there actually a good deal of pitchers out there who are much more skilled with the bat but don’t put in much effort for some reason (risk of injury, not wanting to exert to much energy on the bases, not wanting to have to end the inning not in the dugout, etc…) ?

JediHoyer
Member
JediHoyer

Probably a good deal of them. The majority probably played ss on days they didn’t pitch and hit middle of the order up until they were signed or went to college.

Bukanier
Member
Bukanier

Boscan!