Liriano’s Struggles and Pitching To Contact

Several weeks ago, Ron Gardenhire said a quote that has received a bunch of scorn ever since:

We’ve told him forever that he’s a strikeout pitcher. We understand that he can strike people out, but if he really wants to become a pitcher, pitch to contact. Use that two-seamer and use that slider down and in every once in a while, and that changeup, but pitch to contact early. That’ll get him deep into games.

Because his stuff is so good. There’s times when you need to go for the strikeout. That’s when you save your Mr. Nasty, as they say. You throw the nasty pitches then. But those other times you need to pitch to contact to get you deeper into games. When you want that big strikeout, maybe with a man on second, and you’ve got an open base, take your shot with your stuff.

If we go back to last year, this would have been a puzzling comment by Gardy. While he only averaged a little more than 6 innings per start, Liriano had an above-average 2.72 BB/9 (major league average was 3.28) and threw only 3% fewer pitches in the strike zone (43.3% vs. an average of 46.5%) last season. If anything, Liriano had average to above-average control in 2010.

The 2011 season has been a much different story. After Wednesday’s abomination of a start, Liriano now has a 6.84 BB/9 and was throwing less than 42% of his pitches in the strike zone prior to that start. Even his ability to get strikeouts has suffered, as that’s dropped to an identical career-worst 6.84 K/9.

If you watched the game, this was obvious, but we can see that Liriano was struggling with his command.

Since I was having trouble seeing some of the squares, I circled them to make it easier (hooray color blindness!). For those that also can’t see the squares well, the red circles represent hits while the blue circles are outs in play. Of the six hits he allowed, three went for extra bases.

There’s another interesting thing to point out. I don’t know about you, but when I think of a pitcher missing the strike zone, I think of him missing inside and outside. However, many of his thrown balls were below the strike zone. Maybe this is due to him having poor control (or extraordinary movement) of his slider and 2-seam fastball, or perhaps Liriano was indeed trying to keep the ball low in the zone and just simply failed.

Many fans are returning to the “Liriano isn’t an ace” viewpoint and now it’s starting to seem like that is the truth. Yet some are also claiming that Liriano was never good, or hasn’t been good since 2006, and that’s simply untrue. Saying that 2008 and 2010 weren’t good years for Liriano is blasphemous, and this year is bringing back memories of his terrible 2009 season.

Perhaps something is wrong with Liriano, such as he’s pitching injured. Even if he isn’t, it’s starting to get to the point where I’d think making up an injury for Liriano may be a wise move. Like Joe Mauer, it’s possible that Liriano wasn’t ready for the season and is now paying the price. With the Twins needing a starter for Thursday night’s game and Eric Hacker now being taken out of the equation, putting Liriano on the DL with an “injury” may be his fate.

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