Fastball command sparks Liriano comeback
By Travis Sawchik
Published: Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 7:18 p.m.
SAN DIEGO — In September 2012, Francisco Liriano was struggling so badly with his command he was briefly demoted to the White Sox bullpen. The step backward was a move leading to his ascension to ace status this summer.
In the U.S. Cellular Field bullpen last season, Liriano watched teammate Brett Myers command his fastball with an over-the-top delivery. Throughout his career, Liriano had thrown with a three-quarters arm slot and struggled with fastball command. After watching Myers, Liriano decided to experiment with a more over-the-top style and found he had better control of his fastball from an elevated arm slot. In the winter, he practiced the motion over and over, building muscle memory.
The result? Liriano (14-5, 2.53 ERA) has dramatically improved his fastball command this season in making a strong case for NL Comeback Player of the Year honors. His ability to get ahead in counts with his fastball has forced batters to chase his sharp-breaking, off-speed pitches resulting in nights such as Monday, when Liriano struck out a season-high 13 in a 3-1 win over the Padres.
Liriano recorded the most strikeouts by a Pirates starter since Kip Wells struck out 12 on July 5, 2005, against the Phillies.
“Last year I wasn't able to throw my fastball for a strike,” Liriano said. “This year I'm throwing it for strikes, and it makes all the difference. Pitching is all about location.”
Ten of the strikeouts Monday came swinging on sliders and changeups, pitches that look like strikes coming out of his left hand but dive out of the strike zone and below swings. But the strikeouts were made possible by fastballs that stayed in the zone earlier in counts for strikes.
Liriano is throwing first-pitch strikes 58.3 percent of the time this season, compared to a 53.7 percent rate last season, and a 49.4 percent rate in 2011, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
The fastball command has led Liriano to getting 126 strikeouts in 121 innings, his best strikeout rate since 2010. His swinging strike rate is 13.8 percent, the best since his breakout rookie campaign in 2006. The Padres swung and missed at 23 of his 104 pitches Monday.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said it is fastball command that has allowed Liriano to resurrect his career.
“People I talked to (in the offseason) said his slider was the pitch he could throw for a strike,” Hurdle said. “His changeup was his next best command pitch. The fastball, a lot of times, it was a 50-50 deal. His fastball command has improved dramatically. The fastball sets everything else up.”
Liriano was signed to an incentive-laden deal this offseason that guaranteed him only $1 million in 2013. From 2008-12, Liriano had posted three ERAs north of 5.00.
Hurdle praised Liriano's commitment to not only making mechanical adjustments but said he is among the most diligent Pirates in working on his conditioning.
“We believed we could maybe help him to some degree,” Hurdle said. “But he came in with every intent with changing the direction of his career.”
Liriano is having his best season since 2010 and perhaps his best since his rookie season in 2006, when he burst onto the season with a 98 mph fastball, a wicked slider, and a 12-3 record and a 2.16 ERA. But that season was truncated by an elbow surgery, and Liriano never was consistent again until making an adjustment this offseason.
“To me, I wasn't pitching then,” Liriano said. “I was just trying to blow people out. Now, I'm pitching.”
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Top pitching prospect Taillon’s time with Pirates must wait
- Pirates notebook: Martin finding power stroke
- Spring training breakdown: Orioles 7, Pirates 6
- Pirates notebook: Volquez, Morton struggle
- Pirates reserve outfielder Dickerson is also at home on soccer pitch
- Pirates’ big risk with pitch-heavy draft focus might soon pay off
- Stats Corner: McCutchen’s contract extension brings huge cost savings
- Spring training breakdown: Pirates 10, Rays 5
- Spring training breakdown: Red Sox 4, Pirates 1; Orioles 9, Pirates 2
- Pirates notebook: Liriano looks to complete consecutive quality seasons