Francisco Liriano Made a Ballsy Decision

In a good way, Francisco Liriano is making life more complicated for the Blue Jays. Not that a team should take anything for granted, but as the Jays look ahead to the playoffs, it’s hard to know exactly which starters could and should serve as their starters. The Jays already had some depth when Liriano arrived as something of a salary dump, but a funny thing has happened — Liriano has found himself after leaving Pittsburgh. He’s slashed his walk rate, he’s upped his strike rate, and his ERA with Toronto is 2.92. Liriano looks good again, and he looked terrific Wednesday night.

Ultimately, for the Blue Jays, Wednesday was disappointing. They suffered through a blown save and a loss, and they still haven’t locked up an actual playoff spot. There’s work to be done, and because of the ninth-inning collapse, moments from Liriano’s start earlier have been forgotten. They simply can’t matter that much if the end result was a loss to a rival. I want to bring something to your attention, though. In the fifth inning, Liriano came through with a crucial strikeout of Chris Davis. In that showdown, Liriano took a hell of a chance, and the gamble paid off.

Last weekend, Clayton Kershaw started a game against the Rockies. Kershaw was great, and the Dodgers rolled, but Kershaw introduced a different twist. For a couple pitches in the seventh inning, Kershaw dropped his arm angle, having been inspired by Rich Hill. It was an experiment, and it earned Kershaw a strikeout. Kershaw was able to experiment in the first place because the Dodgers were leading 8-0 at the time. The stakes were low, so, Kershaw figured, why not roll the dice?

Back to Wednesday. The Jays still hadn’t shaken the Orioles, so Wednesday’s was another big game, and the Jays took an early 2-0 lead. Liriano kept the Orioles off the board, but then a threat developed in the top of the fifth. With two on and one out, Liriano struck out Nolan Reimold, but then Adam Jones recorded an infield single. The bases were loaded up for Chris Davis. Davis knows a thing or two about clearing loaded bases.

The leverage index of the moment was 3.81. Remember that a normal LI is 1.00. Leverage does get higher than that, but not very often for starters. For Liriano, this was his third-highest leverage index of the entire season, and the two higher events occurred on April 3. Given the pressure of the playoff race, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say this was Liriano’s biggest plate appearance of 2016. With effective pitching, Liriano could help the Jays almost cement a playoff spot. With a mistake, Liriano could just about allow the Orioles to close the gap in the standings.

You know what Liriano’s about. He throws a sinker, he throws a slider, and he throws a changeup. More often than not, he’s been able to make that package work. Facing Davis, Liriano saw the count run to 2-and-2. It was the third match-up between the players in the game. Liriano needed to find something to put Davis away.

So he threw a curveball.

Liriano hasn’t been known to throw a curveball. Via the excellent Shi Davidi, we learn that Liriano has been messing around with a curve since spring training or April or so. Nevertheless, the pitch has been exceedingly rare. Here’s a plot of Liriano’s pitch movements and pitch speeds. Wednesday’s curveball is marked in yellow.


You see a very small handful of similar pitches, out of a sample of almost 2,800. I’m not sure how many pitches were intended to be curveballs, but no matter the answer, the number is so low a hitter would never be thinking about it. Against Liriano, you’re looking for certain movements within a fairly tight velocity band. The curveball clearly caught Davis by surprise, and that pitch allowed Liriano to cleanly get out of the jam. Kershaw experimented when the stakes were low. Liriano experimented when the stakes were high. He threw an unfamiliar pitch in a 2-and-2 count in probably his biggest showdown of the entire year. That’s bold, and the result was exactly what they wanted.

Before saying anything else — I know the pitch up there looks high. You might try to argue that Liriano got a gift.


The pitch wasn’t right down the middle or anything. It could’ve been called a ball. But look how much Davis dipped down on his back leg:


That’s not how Davis normally hits. The strike zone is basically established by a hitter’s stance when the pitcher’s in his delivery. Here’s Davis’ stance, and about where the pitch crossed the front plane:


You have a pitch even with Davis’ belt, and it’s a pitch that was sinking, as curveballs do. No, that’s not an automatic strike, but that seems like more of a strike than a ball. Chris Davis is tall. His strike zone is tall. Liriano’s curveball clipped the upper bit of it. There is no injustice to lament.

To say that Liriano made the right decision — that would be founded upon results-based analysis. Maybe he actually got lucky; maybe his curveball blows. How should I know? We never see the damn pitch. But the decision was ballsy, without question, with Liriano showing confidence in his ability to take Davis by surprise, and this gets right into that familiar game-theory argument. So often, you hear about guys who only want to be beat on their best pitch. Or you’ll hear criticism for a pitcher when he gives up a big hit on something secondary. Those arguments just don’t hold any water, because if pitchers were more predictable, they’d suffer because of it. This pitch worked specifically because Davis never would’ve expected it. It was Liriano’s biggest plate appearance of the year, and at 2-and-2 he threw his fourth-best pitch, but some percentage of the time, that’s the right call, precisely because of what went down. That’s a heck of a call by Liriano and, possibly or probably, by Russell Martin.

Because of what happened later on to Roberto Osuna, the fifth inning ceased to matter. The Jays lost, and because the Jays lost, they might as well have lost in the third or the fifth or the seventh. It doesn’t make a difference — results in this game are everything. But speaking from a baseball perspective, and not from a playoff-race perspective, Francisco Liriano made a remarkably bold decision in the middle of a critical contest. Don’t ever accuse Liriano of not being willing to take a chance.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

I don’t typically quote Pat Tabler on much, but last night he said “Liriano was painting the strike zone” which ultimately forced hitters not to take anything on the edges. It sounds simple, but it was so evident that was what he was doing – and it was beautiful.