Hitters can't lay off Pirates left-hander Liriano's changeup

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 8:32 p.m.

When the Pirates signed Francisco Liriano, some baseball pundits snickered. After all, the one-time heir apparent to Johan Santana as the game's most dominant left-handed starter walked five batters per nine innings pitched and posted a five-plus ERA during the 2011-12 seasons.

The joke has been on hitters. Liriano has cut his ERA in half, from 5.34 in 2012 to 2.68 in 2013, thanks in part to fewer free passes. No longer a Nuke LaLoosh punch line, Liriano has trimmed his walk rate to a more palatable 3.55 per nine innings.

The winter's biggest bargain — his earnings can top out at just $4.75 million this year — hasn't lowered his walk rate by peppering the strike zone. Liriano has thrown fewer pitches over the plate this season (41.4 percent) than in 2012 (43.2 percent). Instead, he's expanding hitters' strike zones.

Liriano has fooled batters into chasing his stuff outside the strike zone 36 percent of the time this year, up from 30.7 percent in 2012. Only Cole Hamels and Hisashi Iwakuma have a higher chase rate among starting pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings.

Too tempting to resist

Francisco Liriano gets batters to chase pitches outside strike zone nearly as well as anyone.

Pitcher Team Chase pct.

Cole Hamels Phillies 36.7

Hisashi Iwakuma Mariners 36.3

Francisco Liriano Pirates 36.0

Patrick Corbin D-backs 35.4

Adam Wainwright Cardinals 34.8

MLB Avg. 29.3

Source: Fangraphs.com

While Liriano got plenty of chases with his slider even when he was scuffling (around 45 percent in 2012-13), his changeup chase rate has spiked this season. He's also getting hitters to swing at a few more fastballs located off the plate.

Swing and miss

Hitters are chasing Liriano's changeup.

Pitch '12 pct. '13 pct. MLB Avg.

Changeup 32.3 45.9 35.0

Fastball 19.6 20.6 25.0

Liriano is relying upon his tumbling, upper-80s changeup more often this season (21.2 percent of his total pitches) compared to 2012 (16.6 percent). Hitters' lack of restraint against the pitch is costing them: they're slugging .272 against Liriano's changeup, down from .366 last year (the MLB average is about .380).

David Golebiewski is a freelance writer.

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