Mackey: Frustrated Twins running out of ideas with Francisco Liriano
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MINNEAPOLIS -- "We're going to try another one."
That was Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan's response on Monday afternoon when asked how the team could possibly come up with a new approach to fix often-beleaguered left-hander Francisco Liriano.
After extensive discussions between Liriano, manager Ron Gardenhire, and pitching coach Rick Anderson, it was decided on Monday that Liriano's turn in the rotation will be skipped this week. Instead, he will work closely with Anderson, throw two bullpen sessions, and rejoin the rotation next Tuesday in Los Angeles.
But what else could possibly be accomplished via discussion or bullpen session that hasn't been broached previously?
With his first taste of Major League Baseball free agency on the horizon, Liriano took it upon himself to hire a new personal trainer this winter in an effort to show up to spring training in the best possible shape. On top of that, Liriano pitched 30 innings of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he worked mostly on locating his fastball and maintaining consistent mechanics.
The result? A dominant spring in which he struck out 33 and walked only five while showing only brief signs of the "bad" Liriano.
Instead of transferring those offseason building blocks to the regular season, Liriano immediately fell back into his errant form from 2011.
Truth is, the Twins front office and field staff feel as if they've tried almost everything with Liriano, owner of an 11.02 ERA and more walks (13) than strikeouts (12) through his first four starts. Ryan, Gardenhire and Anderson are hoping some time away from competition will help spark him.
If this feels like a last-ditch effort by the Twins, that's because it probably is. The Twins know that getting Liriano right is key to any possible AL Central resurgence. If not for an AL Central resurgence, getting Liriano right is key to any possible return on investment at the trade deadline.
Frustration with Liriano is at an all-time high internally, specifically regarding two main themes:
1.) Liriano's difficulty, at age 28, to self-diagnose mechanical issues.
2.) Liriano's troubles mentally coping with the fact that bad things will inevitably happen throughout the flow of a game, or a season.
When Liriano gives up a home run, or a sharp single or two -- or any other negative occurrence -- he'll often overcompensate by "trying to do too much," as he puts it. This often leads to Liriano trying to force a strikeout, or avoiding the strike zone in order to circumvent a batter squaring up one of his pitches.
In Liriano's first start of the season, against the Baltimore Orioles, he struck out the first three batters he faced on 14 pitches in the first inning. Adam Jones led off the second inning by hitting a 2-1 pitch to opposite field for a solo home run. Liriano followed by walking the next batter, Matt Wieters, on four pitches.
Twins coaches and decision-makers are adamant that Liriano's stuff has good enough movement and velocity -- and difference in velocity -- that he shouldn't have to worry about painting corners.
In fact, at one point last year, in an attempt to get Liriano to throw more strikes, catcher Joe Mauer was instructed -- as a temporary experiment -- to set up right down the middle of the plate on every pitch. The idea was that the movement on Liriano's pitches would guide the ball to the edges of the strike zone -- as opposed to Liriano aiming for the corners and missing.
It didn't work.
Liriano has also had recent, lengthy discussions with Carl Pavano and Bert Blyleven.
According to MLB Pitch F/X data, Liriano's stuff is not quite as crisp this season, even compared to 2011 -- he's not getting as much downward movement on his fastballs or changeup.
But even without his best stuff, the movement and velocity on Liriano's two-seam fastball are very similar to the average two-seamers thrown by Ricky Romero and Madison Bumgarner. The movement and velocity on his slider are similar (albeit mirrored) to right-hander Hiroki Kuroda's. Liriano's changeup is almost exactly the same as Jon Lester's.
"His stuff's fine, his health's fine," Ryan said.
"(Sunday), for instance, when he wanted to he went and got 94 miles per hour."
Location is a much bigger problem for Liriano than the quality of his stuff -- and his lack of location seems to be a combination of mechanics and mental approach.
Only 38% of Liriano's pitches have crossed through the strike zone this season, which is down from his AL-worst 40% mark in 2011.
Liriano was also the only starter in baseball last season not to throw at least 50% first-pitch strikes (49%). He has connected only 47% of the time for first-pitch strikes so far this year. Carl Pavano led the Twins with a 66% rate last year.
"There's mechanical things that he can definitely work on," Gardenhire said. "The tough part for Francisco is that out in the bullpen, normally he's spot on. He's right there, and then you get in the game and... There's other parts of this that we're dealing with also, that we believe are going to really straighten some things out."
Gardenhire added, "It's about being able to relax on the mound and he knows that. He actually says he has confidence. But he'll tell you straight out that when he gets men (on base) out there he starts spinning 'em. So he's got to be able to control that. It's a work in progress. We're letting him take a step back and relax a little bit."
Liriano told reporters last season that the Twins tinkered with his approach, directing him to pitch to contact more frequently, even though his let-it-fly style led to a 3.62 ERA (2.66 FIP) and 201 strikeouts in 2010.
The Twins maintain the message was never "pitch-to-contact," but rather "don't be so afraid of contact." Anderson and Gardenhire wanted Liriano to trade sliders for fastballs and changeups early in counts so the left-hander could keep his pitch counts lower and go deeper into games.
At this point, all parties would settle for any approach that could spark success.