Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Pirates pitcher who succeeds by not throwing strikes

August 28, 2015
If only they didn’t swing. That should be the strategy against Francisco Liriano. Lope into the batter’s box, sling bat over shoulder and play statue. Stare at every ball that whizzes by. And chances are, if temptation doesn’t take over, if the almost pheromonal scent of Liriano’s pitches can’t cajole a swing, the exercise will end in a leisurely stroll to first base.
Because in a pitching world whose mission boils down to a two-word statement repeated ad nauseam – “throw strikes” – Liriano serves as the literal and figurative wild child. Nobody in baseball delivers fewer pitches in the strike zone than the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 31-year-old left-hander, and his mastery of effective wildness has grown into wild effectiveness.
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Francisco Liriano gets whiffs 31.5 percent of the time a batter offers at a pitch. (Getty)
Francisco Liriano gets whiffs 31.5 percent of the time a batter offers at a pitch. (Getty)
In the last 10 years, since baseball started tracking the strike zone through its PITCHf/x system, only one time has a pitcher thrown fewer baseballs in the zone than Liriano’s 36.8 percent this year: Liriano last season, at 35 percent. That’s exactly what it sounds like: nearly two out of every three pitches Liriano throws would be a ball were it not for the lure of his sinker, slider and changeup, the finest three-ingredient combo since peanut butter, jelly and bread.
“He’s got two of the most dynamic off-speed pitches in the game,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “And he has good enough stuff that he still gets swings even when it’s not close.”
And that, above everything, is the beauty of Francisco Liriano, whose career has run the gamut of wunderkind to Tommy John victim to early-career flameout to rebirth and where he is today, starting Friday for the NL wild card-leading Pirates against Colorado: someone reliable despite a relationship with the strike zone that is anything but.
“He has learned how to pitch,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. “Every once in a while, he’ll have a flashback where he thinks he can pitch 97. But he’s more disciplined now.”
Whatever discipline Liriano may have, it’s the lack of discipline from modern hitters that has allowed him to thrive. As recently as 2004, according to data from Baseball Info Solutions, hitters swung at 16.6 percent of pitches outside the zone. This season, they hack at 31.2 percent. And while the contact rate has jumped significantly, too, the willingness of hitters to expand their zones doesn’t just give pitchers like Liriano the license to keep the ball outside of it. Hitters practically invite them to miss.
It helps, of course, when a pitcher brings the caliber of stuff Liriano hauls with him to the mound. Few in baseball can match it, so they opt for strikes. The average starter throws 45.4 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. Carlos Silva once spent more than 65 percent of the time there, and this season’s league leader, Phil Hughes, is at nearly 55 percent. They shared a common quality: Both got hit. A lot.
Nobody generates more misses on swings than Liriano, who gets whiffs 31.5 percent of the time a batter offers at a pitch. This is, no doubt, because so many of Liriano’s pitches are unhittable, a combination of movement, deception and a philosophy that says pounding the strike zone is totally overrated.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence three of the most analytically inclined teams – the Chicago Cubs,Houston Astros and Pirates – rank first, second and third in pitches outside the zone. Then again, the best pitching staff in baseball, St. Louis, ranks 22nd, and perhaps the scariest in the playoffs, theNew York Mets, are 29th. As with Liriano, teams may just play to their pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses. Turning him into Greg Maddux never was a possibility, so the Pirates rehabbed him in other ways.
“It was on and off, up and down after the Tommy John surgery,” Liriano said. “But I believed in myself, and in my mind I always thought I’d be able to do this. I just needed to figure out how.”
Encouraging Liriano to almost completely ditch his four-seam fastball was one tweak. Refining his changeup – a pitch he throws exclusively to right-handed hitters – was another. And because he only offers two pitches to left-handed hitters, Liriano this year wanted to focus on keeping the ball as far away from them as possible while tricking them into thinking they were offering at good pitches.
Already this season Liriano has thrown more low-and-outside pitches to lefties than either of the last two years. Fifty-nine at-bats have ended on a pitch in that location this season. Two have gone for hits. Which isn’t all that different from last year (3 for 47) or the year before (3 for 50) or even when Liriano was terrible in 2012 (0 for 45). It’s more the recognition that hitters are vulnerable and not taking advantage of their inadequacies is a monumental waste.
Every spring, Liriano and Searage sit down and come up with a plan to attack certain parts of his game and make sure they’re ready. They study video from years past and figure out whether the changes will work, because Searage almost never tries to teach new things midseason, leery about the nature of competition overwhelming whatever knowledge may be gained.
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Francisco Liriano's strikeouts per nine innings the last three years: 9.11, 9.70 and 9.69. (Getty)
Francisco Liriano's strikeouts per nine innings the last three years: 9.11, 9.70 and 9.69. (Getty)
“You want freedom of mind for execution of a pitch,” Searage said. “He can throw any pitch in any count at any time. You can’t sit on one friggin’ thing. You can’t sit on his fastball, you can’t sit on his slider and you can’t sit on his changeup. Because once you do, he’s starting to realize he can read guys.”
Already the mind games tilt in Liriano’s favor. Think about it: He doesn’t exactly forgo the called strike, but the action on his slider and changeup in particular turn hitters into such globs of jelly that he doesn’t need to pound the zone. His ERAs over the past three years (3.02, 3.38 and 3.23 this season) back up the premise. His strikeouts per nine innings (9.11, 9.70 and 9.69) are an invitation for other pitchers with big stuff to trust their abilities, embrace walks – Liriano averages 3.3 per nine this year, his lowest since 2010 but still 78th among 88 qualified starters – and paint outside the lines.
“I try to see what they’re looking for and give them something else,” Liriano said. “I want to mix it up as much as I can and not stick to one pitch like I used to, throwing slider, slider, slider, slider.”
It’s not just the swings and misses. Nobody in baseball generates weak contact like Liriano. On every play, Baseball Info Solutions uses a timer to judge how long the ball took to reach the fielder. It then takes the numbers and breaks them into three categories: soft, medium and hard contact. Last season, Liriano’s 24.7 percent soft contact tied Johnny Cueto for the best in the big leagues. This year, nobody comes close to Liriano’s 27.3 percent.
So, batters can’t hit Liriano, and when they manage to, they can’t hit him hard. It’s no wonder the Pirates are elated to have him back at a very reasonable $39 million through the 2017 season. They were also interested in re-signing Edinson Volquez, another Pirates reclamation project, though bringing Liriano back allowed them to see him through.
They get to witness more than half his balls in play scoot along the ground and strikeouts pile up and what at first seemed like a perilous balancing act now play out with jarring regularity. Every time he’s on the mound, Francisco Liriano sticks out his tongue and blows a raspberry at convention – and, by proxy, at hitters.
He dares them to do the right thing, to lay off the vixens that are his pitches, so desirable and dangerous, because he knows the truth of baseball today and of the late-career success that seems unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.
They never do.

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