Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/25/12

We’re only heading into the last week of April, but it’s already been a cataclysmic start to the season for Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano. To contextualize a bit for how bad the season has been for the 28-year-old left-hander, take a look at Liriano’s line from Sunday:

5 innings pitched, 5 runs (5 ER), 4 K/4 BB, 86 pitches (47 strikes)

That’s obviously nowhere near a decent outing — he’ll be skipped in the rotation next time out as a result — but that line actually reduced his ERA (11.91 –> 11.02), WHIP (2.74 –> 2.33), and OPS allowed (1103 –> 1047).

So what gives?

The Twins certainly don’t have all the answers. “We’re kind of baffled right now,” skipper Ron Gardenhire said to LaVelle E. Neal III in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune interview. This isn’t the first time the Twins decision makers have been at wit’s end with the talented-but-mercurial young southpaw. Coming off a strong 2010 season, there was a perception that Liriano didn’t do the requisite work to keep his left wing in shape entering the 2011 season, and the result was an ERA a run-and-a-half higher, two fewer whiffs per nine, and a K/BB rate that was more than halved. And that’s nothing to speak of the 60 inning decrease Liriano incurred, as he was unable to stay healthy toward the end of the season and finished the campaign working out of the bullpen.

It appeared for a moment that Liriano might be ready to shake off the rough 2011 season this spring. Liriano paced all hurlers in spring training in strikeouts with 33, and carried a 2.33 ERA in addition to a 1.11 WHIP. In late February, Liriano told ESPN 1500’s Phil Mackey “I feel way better than I did last year. It’s a good thing.” That positivity lasted through exactly three hitters this season, as Liriano fanned Nolan Reimold, J.J. Hardy, and Nick Markakis in succession before Adam Jones tagged him for a home run leading off the second inning in the season’s second game. It’s been all downhill from that point.

The pre-game talk prior to Sunday’s outing was that Liriano would scale back the two-seamer, a pitch Liriano has toyed with the past few seasons but hasn’t fully mastered. Take a look at Liriano’s pitch chart from that game versus the Rays against RHH (Carlos Pena was the only LHH starting for the Rays that day; he was 0-2 with a pair of free passes):

For one, I only count four-seam fastball — the pitch Liriano himself suggested spurred his spring success — in the strike-zone. So not only did Liriano not ‘scale back’ on the two-seamer, he threw it almost exclusively! That has been the case pretty much all season, as Liriano has just about scrapped the four-seamer — chucked in only 4.9 percent of his offerings — in favor of the two-seamer which he throws nearly half the time. As you’ll see below in the plate appearance where he walks Evan Longoria on five pitches, the pitch gets plenty of natural movement, but Liriano has no idea where it’s going. The next plate appearance also resulted in a four-pitch walk.

One need not be a pitching coach to see he’s all out of whack here. Either his arm is dragging behind, or he is just not getting his release point down, but to right-handers, he’s had virtually no luck locating this pitch at all. In fact, he’s not really locating anything, as his 57 percent strike rate will attest. Take a look at his pitch charts from all four starts he’s made thus far (v. RHH):

On the good side, Liriano is missing mostly down with the sliders, but he’s missing up far too often with his heaters, likely resulting in his 91.0 percent zone contact rate (especially when figured with decreased velocity). Now, it’s not entirely impossible to see the logic behind Liriano’s pitch selection. In 2010, when Liriano was a six-win pitcher, he threw the two-seamer almost exclusively, before inexplicably returning to four-seamer in his rough-and-tumble 2011 campaign. This season, there’s just one problem — beyond location — that is. He’s lost two MPH off that two-seamer — across the board, really — from 2010 and that combined with spotty location is why Liriano is not only walking more guys than he’s fanning, but also getting flat out pummeled (in a smaller sample size, LHH are actually hitting Liriano harder).

So where does Liriano go from here? Well, he’s slated to miss a start before returning to his slot against the Angels in Los Angeles early next week. I’m not a pitching coach, nor do I play one on TV, but I would suggest he return to the four-seamer until his location is cleaned up, and take his lumps with his sub-standard heater until he can regain the command that allowed him to move the two-seamer in and out of the strike zone with aplomb back in 2010. One note around the Twin Cities was that pitching coach Rick Anderson had instructed Joe Mauer to simply set up over the middle of the plate and have Liriano pitch to that spot, and let the natural movement do what it does. Nonetheless, it isn’t working.

But I do think there’s a good chance Liriano could be going through a bit of a dead-arm period. After an innings decrease last season, he not only threw this winter — 30 innings in winter ball down in the Dominican Republic — but he also was a bit ahead of the curve during spring training, throwing longer bullpens earlier in the spring, presumably to keep himself fit and to chase away his 2011 demons. The Twins really have no choice but to let the free agent to-be fight it out in the rotation, as one-inning bullpen stints aren’t likely to benefit either side, and the Twins’ next option to patch up the beleaguered rotation is Scott Diamond.

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