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Appreciating Francisco Liriano’s volatile 2016

How did Francisco Liriano nearly cut his ERA in half after his trade from Pittsburgh to Toronto?

Peter G. Aiken - USA Today Sports

When Francisco Liriano arrived in Pittsburgh in 2013, he was coming off a five year stretch following Tommy John surgery in which he’d experienced wildly oscillating results. He still possessed the “raw stuff” that made him one of the most exciting and dominant rookie pitchers of the naughts, and his sinker, slider, change-up arsenal made him the perfect reclamation project for mystical pitching guru Ray Searage.

Once he had Liriano in his clutches, Searage immediately enforced some mechanical tweaks to his delivery in an effort to guide his movements more efficiently towards the plate and through his target. From what my amateur eyes see, they eliminated a swinging motion in Liriano’s landing leg that would cause his front side to fly open early, and his arm to drag, which he would have to compensate for by speeding up his arm. I’ll do my best to show you what I mean.

The first checkpoint they incorporated in an attempt to keep his front side closed was adding a more pronounced twist in Liriano’s leg kick. This also allowed him to keep his weight over his back leg. Looking at him in 2011 on the left, and in 2015 on the right, he looks like two different pitchers - the tweak is conspicuous.

Baseball Savant

Here’s a better side by side featuring the next phase of his delivery. Here he has just separated his hands and there are some more glaring differences.

Baseball Savant

On the left, from 2012, you can see that all of his motion is already moving towards the plate, and you can see that his front elbow is up and pulling towards the third base side. On the right, from 2015, his weight is still distributed over his back leg and he’s “riding out” his front hip, allowing it to get as far out in front as possible, staving off rotation until it’s absolutely necessary. His front elbow is still down and he appears to be using his glove hand as an anchor for his front side. Next frame.

Baseball Savant

Just before his stride foot opens up to land, on the right, he’s correctly guiding his momentum towards the catcher by keeping his front elbow locked in with his target. On the left, we can really see how opening up early forced his left arm to lengthen, which did create good separation and enabled him to throw as hard as he did, but it also put undue stress on his arm and created a sub-optimal release point that hindered his control.

Here are his average release points for all his pitches from 2010 - 2012.

Release points 2010 - 2012
Brooks Baseball

Look at those horizontal release points (H. Rel) and compare them to his average release points from 2013 - 2015.

Release points 2013 - 2015
Brooks Baseball
Brooks Baseball

Liriano pitches from both sides of the rubber depending on the handedness of the batter, which causes some variance in his release point data, but on average he faced left handed hitters ~21 percent of the time in all of these years.

But in 2016, after three consecutive seasons of pitching more than 160 innings while never posting an ERA over 3.38, Liriano’s mechanics got away from him. It was less severe this time, but his front side started drifting again.

Baseball Savant

You can see, on the right, in 2016, that his front shoulder has dropped, his front ankle is trying to open, and his throwing arm was already starting to fall behind just after separation. This led to some release points that resembled his 2010 - 2012 season release points.

Release points 04/16-07/16
Brooks Baseball

Remember, this happened while under the tutelage of Ray Searage, so when Liriano and his 5.46 ERA were traded at the deadline to Toronto, people were quick to cite his reunion with Russell Martin as the main driver of his success (I’ll come back to that idea) but I want to mention an unsung hero in this story, and that’s Blue Jays’ pitching coach, Pete Walker. Maybe having J.A. Happ as a member of his rotation for four months allowed him to draw positive results out of another ex-Pirate – or maybe he’s just a good major league pitching coach. Excuse my skepticism, but Ray Searage’s reputation is almost mythological at this point.

Sure enough, Liriano’s release points for the rest of the year were back in line with 2013 - 2015.

Release points 08/02-09/28
Brooks Baseball

And while these angles don’t match up perfectly (PIT 2016 v TOR 2016), it’s still obvious that someone in Toronto closed him off again, and maybe even more exaggeratedly so.

Baseball Savant

I think that someone was Pete Walker; and even if all he did was take a page out of Ray Searage’s book, there’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants.

So about the people pointing to Liriano’s reclaimed success being a byproduct of him working with Russell Martin again; had they forgotten that 2015 happened? Even after Martin left for Toronto, Liriano continued to prosper, as the succession of quality pitch framers Pittsburgh deployed allowed him to succeed while living outside of the zone. I understand that it was hard to fathom how Liriano was able to turn things around just as suddenly as it had all fallen apart...

IP ERA FIP K-BB% HR/9
w/ PIT 113.2 5.46 5.28 9.0% 1.50
w/ TOR 49.1 2.92 3.98 17.3% 1.28

...and that sifting through Fangraphs’ game log data for Liriano’s 2013 through 2016 seasons revealed that his results have indeed been better with Martin behind the dish...

Catcher IP ERA WHIP K-BB%
R. Martin 248 2.94 1.19 15.2%
Other 425 4.00 1.36 14.0%

...but Pittsburgh places such a high value on the defensive acumen of their catchers, that Martin’s skill set, at this point in his career, doesn’t justify such a stark contrast in Liriano’s performance.

Now based on the numbers we have, including framing, blocking, and preventing stolen bases, Russell Martin has been a nearly unrivaled defensive catcher over his 11 big league seasons, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that Liriano has performed better with Martin as his catcher (his 235.8 FRAA is tops among all backstops since he entered the league).

However, for the aspect of Martin’s game that so clearly separates him from his Pittsburgh counterparts, there is no definitive method for quantifying its value. I’m alluding, of course, to game calling, which I understand a lot of people are skeptical of, but the game that Martin called for Liriano was so clearly different, and so steeped in logic, relative to the patterns Liriano was using in Pittsburgh, that it’s worth digging into some pitch-by-pitch, count specific, game calling data to show you what, I believe, was the other driving force empowering Liriano in Toronto.

Four seam usage

Four seam usage PIT v TOR

The three counts in which Liriano’s four seam usage increased by the largest margin share a theme: they’re all the most important counts when it comes to needing a strike. Since four seam fastballs are the easiest pitch in baseball to command, this is a logical strategy.

0-0 Counts:

Team Fstrk% Zone% AVG SLG
PIT 54.5% 38.5% .421 .825
TOR 58.2% 40.7% .182 .364

In Pittsburgh, Liriano’s four seam usage in 0 - 0 counts had been 1.9 percent, in Toronto it shot up to 7.2 percent. Since Liriano’s main fastball is a sinker, a pitch most optimally located at the bottom of the zone, introducing more four-seamers into the mix also enabled Liriano to work to two distinctive parts of the zone. The heat map provides a clear visualization of this.

Fastball Heatmap with PIT
Baseball Savant
Fastball Heatmap with TOR
Baseball Savant

1-1 Counts:

Team Strike Ball AVG SLG
PIT 64.3% 35.7% .425 .550
TOR 67.4% 32.6% .250 .350

Now while a first pitch strike is obviously a very important pitch to make, the 1 - 1 pitch is more decisive with regards to the outcome of an at bat. Updating a table from a Grantland article about The Myth of the First-Pitch Strike, here is a table that shows the averages and slugging percentages on pitches of counts up to 2 - 1:

Count Average on that pitch SLG on that pitch
0-0 .347 .583
0-1 .322 .504
1-0 .356 .617
1-1 .334 .536
1-2 .166 .250
2-1 .341 .578

The surest way to gain a strike is to throw a strike, and since Liriano’s four seamer features the highest in-zone rate of all of his pitches, it would make sense for him to use it in 1 - 1 counts to increase his chances of running more 1 - 2 counts. In 1 - 1 counts, Liriano’s overall fastball usage jumped up from 44.7 percent to 55.4 percent meaning that not only did they introduce more four seamers (7.6 percent compared to 1.5 percent in Pittsburgh) but they also threw more sinkers.

3-0 counts:

Team Strike Ball (walk) AVG SLG
PIT 51.4% 48.6% .500 .500
TOR 81.8% 18.2% .000 .000

The importance of a 3 - 0 pitch, of course, is simply to keep runners off the bases by way of free pass. In this strike crucial count, Liriano threw 9.1 percent four seamers compared to just 2.7. As with any count, it’s important not to leave a ball over the middle of the plate, but since hitters are looking for one specific pitch to hit in this count, as evidenced by a league-wide, minuscule 8.7 percent swing rate in 3 - 0 counts, the margin for error within the strike zone, excluding zone 5, is greater than in other counts and it’s best to pump in a strike.

Sinker usage

Sinker usage PIT v TOR

2 - 0 and 2 - 1 counts:

Team Strike Ball AVG SLG
PIT 68.3% 31.7% .404 .702
TOR 69.0% 31.0% .353 .706

Liriano’s sinker is his primary pitch and for good reason. In 2015 - 2016, it produced the 6th weakest exit velocity among sinkers with a minimum of 400 balls in play (89.3 avg exit velocity). It’s also a worm killer, producing ground balls at a clip of 63.9 percent. These characteristics make it a perfect pitch in an effort to induce ground balls as a quick way out of these hitter’s counts.

Slider usage

Slider Usage PIT v TOR

2 - 2 counts:

Team Strike K% Ball AVG SLG
PIT 62.3% 20.1% 34.0% .141 .141
TOR 71.2% 21.2% 28.9% .174 .217

Despite a decrease in its overall usage, Liriano was still able to use his biggest whiff weapon more than half the time in all non 3 - 2, two strike counts (0 - 2, 1 - 2, and 2 - 2). Among the counts in which it’s usage decreased, 2 - 0 is the most notable. We covered Liriano’s heavier utilization of the sinker in this count, and while the slider also generates a solid ground ball rate, Liriano’s sinker is deployed within the zone at a higher rate than his slider.

Change-Up usage

Change Up Usage PIT v TOR

0 - 1 Counts:

Team Strike Ball AVG SLG
PIT 52.5% 47.5% .364 .545
TOR 52.5% 47.5% .471 .529

Using the change-up 0 - 1 prevented Liriano from doubling up on his sinker as often as he had been previously. In Pittsburgh he was throwing his sinker 62.5 percent of the time first pitch and 54.7 percent of the time as an 0 - 1 offering. In Toronto, in 0-1 counts, Liriano upped his change up usage from 19.7 to 31.3 percent while utilizing his sinker 46.5 percent of the time. This might be my favorite adjustment, even though the results aren’t so great - and I think this is the opportune moment to say that all of these results are subject to the very small sample size caveat.

0-2 counts:

Team Strike K% Ball AVG SLG
PIT 55.9% 20.6% 44.1% .135 .297
TOR 56.5% 17.4% 43.5% .200 .200

Liriano’s change up has induced whiffs at a 22.7 percent clip, ground balls at 56.6 percent, and has generated the fourth weakest contact among pitchers who have at least 100 balls in play against their change up - 82.3 mph (2015-2016). It’s also the pitch that garners the most swings at pitches outside the strike zone - 72.5 percent; it was an obvious choice to boost its usage in 0 - 2 counts.

3 - 1 counts:

Team Strike Ball (walk) AVG SLG
PIT 63.6% 36.4% .083 .083
TOR 65.0% 35.0% .000 .000

In 3 - 1 counts, Martin is essentially trying to avoid being too predictable and just like in 0 - 1 counts, he’s trying to avoid doubling up on heaters again.

I understand that this is a lot of data, and that it’s prosaic information to digest, so I have just one more thing to say. I’ve praised Ray Searage, Russell Martin, and Pete Walker, but up to this point I haven’t mentioned Liriano’s tenacious resolution in all of this. None of this is possible if Liriano isn’t a willing participant, and overhauling one’s mechanics is never an easy task, at any age, let alone after a decade as a major leaguer in which he’s earned 44.9 million dollars (and will likely earn a lot more as he’ll enter into free agency again at the end of 2017).

As a spectator, it’s easy to focus on the compensation of major league baseball players and take for granted just how hard they work. Had Liriano never been injured, it’s possible we’d be talking about him as one of the best pitchers of our generation. Instead, he’s struggled, but he’s worked through it, and while it’s definitely not the path he had envisioned for himself, as a fan, it might be even sweeter.

***

Mark Davidson is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can send him bat flip GIFs and follow him on Twitter at @NtflixnRichHill.