Small adjustment key to Pirates pitcher Liriano's return to form
Francisco Liriano spent more time watching the game than participating in it for a time last September. It might have been the best thing to happen for his career.
The White Sox briefly demoted Liriano to the bullpen after a string of shaky starts late last season. Chicago had taken a chance on the electric but inconsistent lefty, acquiring the free-agent-to-be at midseason from Minnesota. But control issues persisted as Liriano walked five batters and allowed five runs per nine innings last season, just as he had in 2011.
So with the White Sox chasing a division title, Liriano found himself banished to the U.S. Cellular Field bullpen seeking answers. It was there he believes he found a solution to his command woes. It was there he might have found a way to return to his 2010 form when he was one of the best lefties in the game, striking out more than a batter per inning, while walking 2.7 batters per nine innings.
“Last September, I didn't pitch much. I was in the bullpen, so I was trying to figure out what I could do to get better with my fastball,” Liriano said. “I saw Brett Myers going overhead, and he spotted the fastball pretty well. I just started doing it myself. I felt comfortable doing it.”
Moving from a three-quarters to a more over-the-top delivery produced excellent results in his rehab assignments earlier this year. As he worked his way back from a broken right arm, Liriano walked four and struck out 33 in 21 rehab innings. The results continued into his Pirates debut Saturday in New York, when he allowed one run and two walks over 52⁄3 innings, striking out nine.
Liriano hopes to sustain his improved control against the Brewers at 7:05 p.m. Thursday at PNC Park.
Against the Mets, Liriano threw his four-seam fastball for strikes 68 percent of the time, a considerable improvement from his career average of 55 percent. More often ahead in the count, Liriano made the Mets susceptible to his sharp-breaking offspeed pitches. The Mets swung and missed at 44 percent of Liriano's changeups and 25 percent of his sliders. The majority of his strikeouts came via offspeed pitches.
“My offspeed has been there the last couple of years, I just wasn't always able to locate my fastball well,” Liriano said. “Every time I threw (offspeed pitches) they were taking them. Now I get more swing and miss because I get ahead with my fastball.”
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said an over-the-top delivery promotes better control as pitchers are better able to keep their fingers on top of the ball through extension.
After the Pirates signed Liriano to an incentive-laden deal this offseason — he is guaranteed just $1 million in 2013 — Searage sought the counsel of Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson. He watched video and saw what Anderson had seen for so many years: a pitcher with a swing-and-miss slider, an effective changeup and a fastball that had the fifth-best velocity (93 mph) among MLB left-handed starters last season. But he saw a pitcher who struggled with fastball command, negating the effectiveness of his offspeed pitches.
While Liriano's velocity isn't what it was prior to his 2006 Tommy John surgery, it's still a rare package of stuff for a left-hander. He struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings in the second half last season. But could Searage help Liriano command his fastball?
“Everybody wants to try to help and fix, and before you know it there are too many adjustments, and the pitcher loses his personality,” Searage said. “There are so many different things, you try to limit it to one or two.”
Searage has worked with Liriano on a more direct path to home plate within his delivery, which combined with his higher release point, is designed to improve command. If Liriano's precise control is for real he could be one of the game's best reclamation projects of 2013.
“I don't use the word reclamation,” Pirates manger Clint Hurdle said. “We use bounce back.”
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