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Updated: August 12th, 2010 11:51pm
Mackey: Is it crazy to suggest Liriano is a top-5 pitcher again? Not at all

Mackey: Is it crazy to suggest Liriano is a top-5 pitcher again? Not at all

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire frequently uses the term "battle" when describing the performances of his starting pitchers, but Francisco Liriano may have redefined that expression in Thursday night's 6-1 win over the White Sox.

His final pitching line wasn't necessarily mesmerizing -- Liriano allowed one earned run on seven hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings while striking out just four -- but his refusal to let adverse circumstances lead to White Sox runs was duly noted and downright gutty.

Liriano pitched out of bases-loaded jams three times -- the third time with some help from Matt Guerrier -- allowing only one run.

In the fifth inning alone, one could make the case Liriano induced six outs. After a leadoff walk to Gordon Beckham, Juan Pierre hit a line drive off the glove of a sliding Delmon Young in left field. Alexei Ramirez then attempted a sacrifice bunt, but wound up beating out a low throw by Danny Valencia. One batter later, Alex Rios hit a dribbler back to the mound for a tailor-made 1-2-3 double play, but Joe Mauer hesitated to pull the trigger on a throw to first base with Rios running on the inside of the base path.

Yet, Liriano recovered to strike out Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin. And he made both of them look absolutely silly.

That's what aces do. They make good hitters look foolish.

In a season where 18 pitchers had ERAs under 3.00 heading into Thursday night's games, Liriano's 3.26 mark may not be low enough to qualify him as one of baseball's best starters in the eyes of the mainstream masses. And that's the problem with the mainstream masses -- they tend to only look at ERA and win/loss records.

But upon deeper digging, Liriano's 3.26 ERA is actually quite deceiving, and likely quite inflated as well.

Let's start with the fact that Liriano has a propensity to stumble out of the gate. If opposing offenses don't touch him up early, they likely don't touch him up at all.

Heading into Thursday night:
1st inning: 6.55 ERA, opponents batting .347/.415/.453
2nd inning: 4.15 ERA, opponents batting .253/.333/.329
3rd inning: 3.86 ERA, opponents batting .259/.294/.321
4th inning: 2.57 ERA, opponents batting .221/.277/.260
5th inning: 2.21 ERA, opponents batting .240/.337/.360
6th inning: 2.00 ERA, opponents batting .212/.235/.303
7th inning: 0.69 ERA, opponents batting .093/.188/.116
8th inning: 2.45 ERA, opponents batting .267/.313/.333

Also consider this: Heading into Thursday, Liriano's 9.98 strikeouts per nine innings ranked fourth in the majors, his two home runs allowed are the fewest in baseball, his 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) ranks fourth behind Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson, and his 2.14 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) led all starters.

Don't believe in FIP? Here are the previous league leaders over the last 10 years:

2009: Zack Greinke (2.33)*
2008: Tim Lincecum (2.59)*
2007: Jake Peavy (2.84)*
2006: Johan Santana (3.04)*
2005: Johan Santana (2.80)
2004: Randy Johnson (2.30)
2003: Pedro Martinez (2.21)
2002: Pedro Martinez (2.24)
2001: Randy Johnson (2.22)*
2000: Pedro Martinez (2.17)*
* Cy Young Award winners

Notice that Liriano's FIP is better in 2010 than all of the above.

Perhaps the most telling number, however, is Liriano's .349 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) heading into Thursday -- the highest BABIP of any starter in baseball, and well above his .324 mark in 2009 and .289 mark in 2006.

For a pitcher of Liriano's caliber, especially considering he is back to inducing truckloads of groundballs once again, a .349 BABIP is incredibly unlucky. Heck, we saw direct evidence on Thursday night when Young dropped that line drive in the fifth inning, and when Omar Vizquel literally threw his bat at a changeup in the sixth inning and trickled it into the left-field corner for a double.

It's obvious just by watching him baffle hitters and pump 95 mph fastballs that Liriano is back to his old tricks of 2006. Even so, many folks, and even many Twins fans, would laugh at the notion that he is one of the top five pitchers in baseball this season.

Yes, he has flaws -- the inevitable five-run clunker once every month or so, and bloated pitch counts that prevent him from pitching complete games -- but with some better luck and some better defense behind him, Liriano would find himself squarely in the mix for the American League Cy Young Award, right behind Cliff Lee.

And with seven weeks remaining in the season, Liriano may still force his way into that conversation.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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