The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 7, 2013

Thoma column: The changeup changed Liriano's career path


The Mankato Free Press

---- — For the ever-growing chorus of Twins fans-critics who hold pitching coach Rick Anderson responsible for all that ails Minnesota moundwork, Francisco Liriano is Exhibit A.

Liriano is having a superb 2013 for Pittsburgh. He was 16-8, 3.02, with more strikeouts than innings pitched in the regular season. He has even better so far in the playoffs, with 13 innings of three-run ball in two starts.

Liriano has been here before. Three times with the Twins — in his dazzling rookie season of 2006, in the second half of 2008, for much of 2010 — he appeared to be on the road to stardom.

But that road always led to another detour. Injuries and ineffectiveness overrode success for the big lefty, and in 2012 there came the inevitable parting of the ways. He was traded to the White Sox, where he was no better and arguably worse than he was with the Twins.

He signed for a relative pittance with Pittsburgh as a free agent, and started performing brilliantly for his new team.

Liriano has always defied simple analysis, but one thing about his 2013 season is glaringly obvious: He's changed his mix of pitches.

He's still slider-heavy, and understandably so. His slider is one of the most devastating pitches in the game.

But he throws his changeup much more often now than he ever did with the Twins. On Tuesday against the Reds, he threw a fastball only 25 percent of the time.

This turns pitching convention on its head. For virtually every hurler other than knuckleball specialists, pitching begins with the fastball.

Standard pitching procedure: Locate the fastball to get ahead in the count, then finish off the hitter with a breaking ball or changeup.

This is what Anderson tried to get Liriano to do with the Twins. This is almost certainly what Don Cooper, the veteran pitching coach of the White Sox, tried to get Liriano to do after the Sox traded for him.

The problem is that Liriano's fastball is his third best pitch. Yes, he has velocity, but he lacks command of it. Always has, probably always will.

The Twins (and their broadcasters) used to tout Liriano's changeup, but he never really featured the pitch. He was always about the power: fastball and slider, with the change as an afterthought.

If you want to blame Anderson for that, go ahead. But I do find this interesting: The two best starting pitchers the Twins have had over the past two decades, Johan Santana and Brad Radke, featured outstanding changeups.

Anderson tried too hard to turn Liriano into a typical Twins pitcher, the critics say. I would suggest that Liriano's revival in Pittsburgh is the result of him shifting to a more Twins-like approach.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.