Beating Francisco Liriano, in Theory

It’s difficult to write about the bigger picture when there have been precisely three games played in the regular season. The picture, as it stands now, is microscopically small. So we focus on the little things. We observe, but we try not to draw conclusions. Mostly, we wonder and speculate about the upcoming year, just like we have been throughout the entire offseason, except now, we do so with a tiny bit of knowledge about what that year actually entails.

One of the things I’m interested to watch this year is the development of an eight-year trend of pitchers throwing fewer and fewer pitches in the strike zone while getting batters to chase more and more balls. Most specifically, I’m interested in watching Francisco Liriano, the leader of the “throw strikes never” movement. The last couple years, Liriano has simultaneously thrown the fewest percentage of pitches inside the zone while also generating one of the highest chase rates.

Liriano already walks a ton of batters, and knowing those two facts, the logical question one asks oneself is, “Why do batters keep swinging?” Seems it should be easy to let Liriano beat himself. Spoiler alert: nothing about baseball is easy.

The Pittsburgh Pirates kicked off the 2016 season on Sunday with a home game against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Francisco Liriano kicked off that game as Pittsburgh’s starter. Liriano allowed three hits over six shutout innings, striking out 10 while walking five. It feels like a very Liriano-esque line, but in fact is a nobody-esque line, because Liriano was the first pitcher ever to produce that exact line. (That’s not as cool as it sounds, it actually happens quite often).

Still, it felt like a classic Liriano game, and that’s mostly because Liriano pitched it like classic Liriano. As he should. What he’s been doing is working quite well.

He threw plenty of pitches outside the strike zone:

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And he coaxed plenty of bad swings, and whiffs:

Swings

That’s what the whole game looks like. One game. The game is often the smallest unit of measure we consider to analyze a player’s performance. There’s careers, and there’s years, and there’s halves, and there’s months, and then there’s games. But we can learn more by going beyond just game. We can learn more by going beyond this game. Because this game had two distinct movements: pre-Cardinals adjustment and post-Cardinals adjustment. True, neither movement could be considered ultimately successful for the Cardinals, seeing as both movements together resulted in a loss. But an adjustment was made, and given what we know about Liriano, it was an interesting one to watch play out in real-time.

Let’s just look at a couple basic numbers, starting with Liriano’s first two trips through the Cardinals order. Anytime I refer to a pitch in or out of the strike zone, know that I’m using data from BrooksBaseball, based on their strike-zone box. Okay. Some numbers.

Liriano, first two times through order

  • Pitches thrown, in zone: 19/64, 30%
  • Swings against, total: 33/64, 51%

Early on, Liriano was masterful, and the Cardinals looked helpless, as they flailed away at his out-of-zone sliders and changeups. Two times through the order, Liriano had faced 18 Cardinals and struck out half of them. This is when that question creeps back in: “Why don’t they just stop swinging?” Watching Liriano pitch as a fan of his opponent can be a maddening experience. The adjustment seems so easy. Stop swinging, and suddenly Liriano is the maddening one to his own fanbase. It seems like it should just take the flip of a switch. Like this:

Liriano, third times through order

  • Pitches thrown, in zone: 8/30, 27%
  • Swings against, total: 6/30, 20%

Liriano didn’t change much. He continued throwing roughly the same rate of pitches outside the zone, and his average pitch location didn’t deviate at all. It’s just, the Cardinals made that adjustment. The one that seems so easy.

The slider that Randal Grichuk chased in his first at-bat…

…was taken for a ball in his third:

In his third at-bat, Stephen Piscotty was able to lay off the same changeup…

…that got him in his second:

Give a batter a third chance to see a pitcher, and he’ll figure him out. The Cardinals made the easy fix that everyone feels should be made against Liriano: they stopped swinging. After hacking at more than half of Liriano’s pitches the first two times through the order, they swung at just two of every 10 the third time through. After being in complete control for five innings, Liriano walked a third of his final nine batters and had to work his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth to save his start from going off the rails.

See? That’s proof! Even though the Cardinals weren’t able to capitalize, it works! Once the Cardinals just stopped swinging, they quickly gained the upper-hand.

But see, here’s the thing. It’s not like Liriano’s approach the first two times through the order snuck up on St. Louis. They’ve seen him plenty the last couple years. They had all the time in the world to prepare for this start. They knew what was coming. And out of the gate, they still couldn’t help themselves. It’s the deception. It’s the movement on Liriano’s stuff. It’s his ability to start pitches inside the zone and move them out. There’s a reason Liriano’s formula continues to work: because it’s a good one. Even with the full scouting report, and Liriano pitching right to it, it took the Cardinals batters two times through the order to acclimate themselves to Liriano’s game. By then, time was running out, and the margin for error was small.

Every team in baseball has felt the way the Cardinals felt those first two times through the order against Liriano. Those first two times through were essentially representative of the entire league against him over the last three years. The third time through was representative of what the league wants to do. Why don’t more teams do what the Cardinals did the third time through? I don’t know. You’d have to ask literally every lineup that’s faced Francisco Liriano since he joined the Pirates. The key is just getting there sooner. The Cardinals only got one inning, post-adjustment. Then they saw a fresh arm. Making that adjustment, against Francisco Liriano, is easier said than done.

We hoped you liked reading Beating Francisco Liriano, in Theory by August Fagerstrom!

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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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bobdylan41
Member
bobdylan41

I believe that you have a great point, but I also think that the earlier pitches were just executed a little bit better by Liriano.