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Updated: March 22nd, 2011 11:57pm
Mackey: Liriano's luck one of three trends (almost) certain to change

Mackey: Liriano's luck one of three trends (almost) certain to change

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Remember the Minnesota Twins' seemingly hopeless struggles hitting with the bases loaded last season?

At one point Twins hitters, collectively, were batting under .100 with the bases loaded, and the futility lingered long enough to warrant increasing media attention into late-May.

Of course, by the end of the year Twins hitters posted a .320/.339/.503 line with the sacks packed, proving that things eventually even out throughout the course of 162 games.

Well, most of the time.

There were a few trends in 2010 that didn't even themselves out.

But 2011 awaits.

Disclaimer: This article contains statistical analysis. Baseball traditionalists are encouraged to proceed with caution, and perhaps with headache medicine.

Liriano's luck

It might be hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that Francisco Liriano -- who posted a 3.62 ERA with 201 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings in a post-surgery breakout season -- was actually unlucky in 2010.

But which of the following number sets from last season doesn't fit with the rest?

- Liriano induced more swings and misses (27%) than any other starting pitcher in baseball.
- Liriano allowed fewer home runs (9) than any other starting pitcher in the American League.
- Liriano struck out 201 batters.
- The hardest-hit pitchers in baseball allowed 26% line drives. Liriano allowed 19%.
- Liriano induced more groundballs (54%) than all but two qualified American-League starters.
- Liriano allowed a .331 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which was the second-highest mark among all starters, behind only James Shields (.342), and well above his (now inflated) .313 career average, and the .280-.295 league average.

Wait -- Liriano was mostly untouchable by all measures compared to his peers last season, yet on balls in play (all batted balls except home runs) he allowed the second-highest batting average?

For a guy who tallied more than a strikeout per inning, induced more whiffs than any other pitcher in baseball, allowed the fewest home runs of any AL starter and a relatively low amount of line drives, it seems odd that hitters would make solid enough contact to hit .331 on balls in play.

Ignore the scoffing of baseball traditionalists and think about it for a minute. Liriano ran a small wind farm business at Target Field, yet also somehow was "hit the hardest?"

It doesn't add up.

That's because Liriano's .331 BABIP against was almost certainly a product of bad luck -- bleeders, seeing-eye singles, and perhaps a defensive lapse or two. Or three.

Not that he wasn't hit hard once in a while, of course, because BABIP can be influenced to a certain extent by defense and/or how hard a pitcher was hit in any given season. But it's a telling trend that nearly all pitchers fall between 40 BABIP points of each other.

In fact, over the four-year stretch from 2007-2010, 55 out of the 60 pitchers who threw at least 600 innings fell between .274 and .314.

There is simply no such thing as a pitcher who allows a .331 BABIP over an extended period of time, or a pitcher who miraculously holds opponents under .250.

It evens out long-term, and it would be very surprising if Liriano's BABIP against didn't drop back toward .300 in 2011.

Span's ground balls

This one is a bit obscure, but relevant, considering the skill set of the subject, Denard Span.

OK, it's extremely obscure.

In his first two seasons, Span put up fantastic offensive numbers for a leadoff hitter -- .305/.390/.422 in 1,087 plate appearances. Those numbers dropped off considerably in 2010, as Span hit just .264/.331/.348 in 705 plate appearances. His walk rate also dropped from 12.2% to 10.4% to 8.5% over those three seasons, which contributed to Span's 60-point drop in on-base percentage.

Manager Ron Gardenhire's strategy for getting Span back to where he was in '08 and '09 is logical -- "The best thing I can do is probably pick him up a little bit and give him a little bit more breaks, and keep him a little bit more rested," Gardenhire said. "I'll do a better job of that and we'll see how it goes."

The more technical explanation is that Span needs to improve his batting average ...

... On groundballs.

That's right.

In 2010, Span hit just .223 on groundballs, which is well below his .257 and .287 marks in 2008 and 2009. Other players with similar skill sets to Span (think Jacoby Ellsbury) generally hit between .260 and .275 on groundballs, maybe even higher, depending on speed and surface.

And for a guy who usually hits a ton of groundballs, it's obviously important to have a high success rate.

A .270 batting average on groundballs would have given Span 14 more hits last season, which would have raised his overall batting average to .286 and his on-base percentage to .352.

So why the drop-off? Of course, the transition from the Metrodome turf to the Target Field grass could have made a difference, or perhaps even some bad luck.

Bad habits, however, apparently played the biggest role.

"A little bit of a mechanical thing," hitting coach Joe Vavra said. "He was raising up off the ball when the ball was coming in.

"Usually the head's really still, and with him he was raising up a little bit. So when he went to swing it, he wasn't seeing actually what he saw out of the (pitcher's) hand. He was kind of creating a little different up and down trajectory, or plane of the ball. So he was either on top of it or underneath it, but he wasn't squaring up as much as he had been."

"It was just hard for him to get rid of," Vavra added. "He's much better now."

Nick Swisher actually faced a similar issue in 2008, when his batting line dipped to a career-low .219/.332/.410 with the White Sox, due mostly to a .157 batting average on groundballs.

Not surprisingly, Swisher's groundball batting average went back up to .200 in 2009 -- normal for him -- which brought the switch hitter back to his standard batting line of .249/.371/.498.

Young's clutch hitting

In a breakout season offensively, Delmon Young hit .298/.343/.495 in 613 plate appearances overall last year, and .355/.379/.533 in 190 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.

"Clutchness" is difficult to quantify. Surely some players become more or less nervous than others when pressure is high, but under no circumstances is "clutch" a predictable phenomenon.

If it was, guys like Gene Larkin would have made a lot more money.

"Clutch" is also commonly misperceived.

Derek Jeter, for example, is widely viewed as one of the most clutch postseason hitters in baseball history, as evidenced by his .309/.377/.472 batting line in 679 career postseason plate appearances. But that batting line is hardly any different than his career regular season line of .314/.389/.452. Jeter is simply clutch all the time, because he's a great hitter.

Alex Rodriguez is widely viewed as having an underwhelming postseason track record, but he has posted a .290/.396/.528 batting line in 276 postseason plate appearances, as opposed to .303/.387/.571 in the regular season. Not much difference. Not surprising.

Back to Young, whose performance with runners in scoring position was beyond astronomical compared to his baseline.

This isn't to say Young's performance was lucky. It wasn't. Young is a very good hitter.

But even the best hitters in baseball don't have a 50+ point gap between their clutch numbers and overall numbers.

Albert Pujols hits .345/.486/.672 with runners in scoring position throughout his career and .331/.426/.624 overall. Paul Molitor hit .326/.405/.458 with runners in scoring position and .306/.369/.448 overall.

Young is likely to have another solid season offensively.

Just don't expect the same level of clutchness.

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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