Fire Gardy

Mismanaging games since 2002

The Luck of the Liriano

In the comments on yesterday’s post about Liriano, we had a pretty good discussion that’s worth reading through. There were a couple posts, by semi-frequent commenter Ragstoriches, that stuck out from the flow of the conversation and raise an issue that I don’t think I can do justice to in a comment. So I’m promoting it to a full-blown post, is what I’m doing.

He opened with this:

Liriano’s stuff may be better this winter, but Frankie’s biggest problem of late isn’t his stuff, it’s that he’s a friggin head case. He absolutely cannot deal with adversity – he can throw 6 innings of no-hit ball but a walk and a blooper later he’s in complete meltdown mode, and before you can blink he’s given up 5 or 6 runs.

And after the rest of the conversation had taken place, he closed with this:

So you don’t think Frankie had a tough time getting out of jams last year? Even your stats would prove that. Why did ‘09 Frankie fail to resemble even the 2nd half of ‘08 Frankie – he had another year to recover from surgery, right?

I’m sure games like that happened, but that happens to a lot of pitchers; also, I’ve found that memory is a funny thing, and that it sometimes plays tricks on you. So, without further ado, it’s time to peel back some layers of Liriano’s statistical onion and see just how quickly it can make us cry.

Ready? I sure am.

First, a baseline “this is not a jam” situation (leading off an inning). The first batter of the game had an .863 OPS with a .389 BABIP; the first batter of the inning overall had an .897 OPS with a .337 BABIP. So … not good, but also very unlucky.

His performance was worse than that in every base/out situation except “men on first and second” (when he had a .773 OPS with a .308 BABIP), and “a man on third and 2 outs” (when he had an .830 OPS and a .429 BABIP).

Some notable “in a jam” situations:

  • RISP: .922 OPS, .347 BABIP
  • Men on: .945 OPS, .369 BABIP
  • Man on third: 1.117 OPS, .455 BABIP
  • First & third: .908 OPS, .286 BABIP
  • 2nd & 3rd: 1.198 OPS, .500 BABIP
  • 3rd, under 2 outs: 1.221 OPS, .370 BABIP
  • 3rd, 2 outs: .830 OPS, .429 BABIP

Look at those BABIP numbers, please. For the most part, those are ludicrously high, unsustainable for any pitcher. Furthermore, in only three cases are his BABIP numbers in a “reasonable” or “predictive” range; .288 with the bases empty, .286 with men on first and third, and .308 with men on first and second. Meanwhile, in all other cases, his BABIP ranged from .321 up to an absurd .500.

Okay, so base/out situations give us one window into Liriano’s failure when he got into a jam, but there’s more to this story.

Let’s take a look at his “clutch stats,” to see if those shed any more light on what’s going on here.

  • 2 outs, RISP: .892 OPS, .359 BABIP
  • Late & Close: 1.277 OPS, .545 BABIP
  • Tie game: .800 OPS, .303 BABIP
  • Within 1 R: .879 OPS, .324 BABIP
  • Within 2 R: .866 OPS, .329 BABIP
  • Within 3 R: .875 OPS, .333 BABIP
  • Within 4 R: .856 OPS, .328 BABIP
  • > 4 R: .474 OPS, .259 BABIP

Or we could just break it down by the leverage index, and see how he did in situations of various “game-on-the-line”-itude.

  • High leverage: .893 OPS, .371 BABIP
  • Medium leverage: 1.009 OPS, .367 BABIP
  • Low leverage: .567 OPS, .243 BABIP

Alright. Enough. I think we’re painting a pretty clear picture here.

Liriano had bad basic numbers overall in 2009, but these numbers show that for the most part what happened was that when he was “in a jam” or the game was “on the line,” he got ridiculously unlucky; when it didn’t matter, his luck reversed and he “mowed down the opposition” (ie, the ball found the defenders’ gloves).

Much has been made of Liriano’s strikeouts and walks, of his command of his fastball, of his confidence and his emotional state, of how he seemed to get tired after just a few innings, or that he couldn’t adjust to the adjustments the hitters made the second and third time through the order. A lot of these things are true; especially the ones about his command, and his K/BB ratio.

Check out his peripheral stats:

  • 2006: 10.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 6.6 H/9, 0.7 HR/9, 4.5 K/BB
  • 2008: 7.9 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 8.8 H/9, 0.8 HR/9, 2.09 K/BB
  • 2009: 8.0 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 9.7 H/9, 1.4 HR/9, 1.88 K/BB

Obviously, every single one of those stats is trending in the wrong direction (and that’s why his ERA+ has gone from 207 to 107 to 75).

It stands to reason that eventually, his luck will change and his BABIP will drop back to normal levels; his H/9 should drop back down, perhaps not all the way to 6.6, but perhaps to the 7-8 range. A 1.4 HR/9 is totally unsustainable, and that’ll go back down to 1.0 or so (especially given Liriano’s propensity to generate ground balls).

So even if Liriano’s stuff hasn’t improved, and his K/9 and BB/9 rates stay the same, and the only thing that changes is that he’s not one of the unluckiest pitchers in the game, well, his numbers are going to improve quite a bit. If he doesn’t get better, just less-unlucky, Liriano is an above-average pitcher.

And if the reports about his improved command, velocity, and movement prove true? Well, if you combine that with improved luck, he’s still not back to 2006 but he’s getting close.* And close, really, is good enough.

* I closed yesterday’s post by saying that perhaps I was being wildly optimistic. After seeing just how bad his luck was in 2009, I think that was an overstatement. I’m optimistic, but there’s nothing “wild” about predicting that his BABIP will decrease from its cosmic heights and bring his numbers back into line with his talent.

So no, I don’t think the numbers show that Liriano had an especially tough time getting out of jams last year. I think the numbers show that he was unlucky, that any time someone made contact, the ball found a hole. I think that bad luck may, over time, have gotten into his head; have you ever gotten into a rut where you think that everything’s going to go wrong for you? I have, and when it happens your confidence is destroyed; you alternate between not trying enough and trying too hard, and neither is any good. Recovering from this is hard, and a lot of it is just taking some time off and rebuilding your confidence before you get back to it. It must be nice to have an offseason.

That’s why I put so much stock into quotes like this:

“[It was like], this is me,” Liriano said of the way he was throwing. “That’s the way I know how to pitch. Not worry about anything or any hitter. Just go out there and try to throw first pitch strikes and locate my fastball. I feel like I did in ‘06, I have my confidence back. My arm feels great. Physically and mentally I’m ready to go.”

and this:

“I’ve got my confidence back,” Liriano said. “This winter is the best I’ve felt.”

I don’t see Liriano as being any sort of spin-master, with the ability to concoct an elaborate web of lies for our benefit. I see him more as a simple man, perhaps not fully mature, who hadn’t had to face much hardship until after he’d been thrust into the public eye; and now he’s stuck having to grow up in front of our eyes.

Perhaps it’s naivete, but I trust that he can do it.

20 comments

20 Comments so far

  1. Kevin February 2nd, 2010 9:25 pm

    Fascinating!

  2. Ragstoriches February 3rd, 2010 8:21 am

    Thank you for breaking this down, as you’re no doubt aware I go much more on “gut feel” than stats, and I know it drives you crazy. But that’s the beauty of the internets right?

    Since you obviously put some time into this, can you facilitate my understanding of this by explaining what BABIP is? Something to do with fielding?

  3. sirsean February 3rd, 2010 8:46 am

    Ah. BABIP stands for “batting average on balls in play.”

    It’s something that’s almost completely out of the pitcher’s control, and while it does fluctuate it tends to be about the same for all pitchers across the league. Normally, you can expect a pitcher’s BABIP to be in the .280-.310 range (even .310 is high, but not absurd).

    Many times you’ll see a pitcher who had a great season, and it turns out that it was almost all based on an unsustainably low BABIP, like .230 or something, and once that regresses to normal it turns out the pitcher actually wasn’t as good as you thought. Conversely, it’s common for an abnormally high BABIP to make a pitcher’s basic numbers (ERA, etc) to look much worse than he actually pitched.

    Liriano still needs to increase is K rate and decrease his BB rate, both of which are in his control. But even that may not make as much of a difference in his measured performance as an expected normalization of his BABIP.

    Hopefully that helps to explain some things.

  4. Ragstoriches February 3rd, 2010 9:12 am

    Not to play devil’s advocate (ok, to play devil’s advocate), wouldn’t a high BABIP also suggest hitters making real solid contact – hard hit balls, that sort of thing? I can buy the theory where a ground ball is hit involves some luck, but a base hit up the middle is a lot of the hitter making solid contact on a hittable pitch. Also, line drives are typically well-hit balls…I guess I’m saying, wouldn’t a pitcher who threw nothing but 88 mph fastballs right down the middle have a high BABIP, because he’s getting lit up? Got to think the pitcher is at least partially responsible for this.

  5. sirsean February 3rd, 2010 9:21 am

    Yes, you’re right about all those considerations. In the case of Liriano, though, they don’t apply. Here’s why.

    Liriano’s BABIP on the line drives he gave up was .756 (the average is .750, so this is absolutely not out of line). Meanwhile, he gave up a line drive on 80 plate appearances (out of 416 that made contact).

    Thus, he gave up a line drive to 19.2% of hitters who made contact with the ball.

    A 20% LD rate is considered high; Liriano’s career LD rate is 18.0%. I wouldn’t say his 19.2% rate in 2009 indicated that he was giving up an inordinate amount of line drives. Slightly more than he should be giving up, but certainly not enough to explain these ludicrous BABIP numbers.

  6. Ragstoriches February 3rd, 2010 10:09 am

    Okay, thanks.

    I’m still going to temper my enthusiasm until I see him make a few starts, but if he really does return to that #1 or #2 form that brightens my outlook for the club. Without Frankie in the mix I can’t see us beating Boston, New York, or LA in the playoffs. But with a hard-throwing ace and a big-game pitcher (Blackie, based on a very small sample), we might have a fighting chance.

  7. rghrbek February 3rd, 2010 10:30 am

    Great post. Love the research and drawing your conclusions based on that. I tend to agree with you on that his luck should improve, based on those numbers.

    If that is the case, then he will stick around all year and contribute. Note: I understand this contradicts my prediction. We’ll see.

    Speaking of luck, I would love to see something similar down with “Big Game” Nick Blackburn. I think he has been pretty lucky, basically like Carlos Silva, the early years.

    He gets a ton of praise by the local media, and I feel a lot of fans who may think he is better than he is. Don’t get me wrong he deserves a spot in the rotation, but sometimes I feel the league will catch up to him, as they did to Silva.

    I forget if it was you, gleeman, or one of the other bloggers I read, but someone did a detailed post on this. It was fascinating.

  8. sirsean February 3rd, 2010 10:36 am

    I think it’d be interesting to see this done for Blackburn. Perhaps a series, with one post for each of our starters.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to learn that the BABIP has risen across the board for our starters as a result of an increasingly inept defense. (If looking at the other pitchers shows that all of them had an unusually high BABIP, I’m not as willing to blame it on “bad luck,” because while I think it’s reasonable to say that one guy got unlucky, once you’re blaming bad luck for the failure of a group of players on your team you’re getting into dangerous territory. So it’d be interesting to look at.)

    The comparison of Blackburn to Silva is an interesting one, and valid on the face of it; both are called “sinkerballers” by Anderson and Gardy, neither has great stuff and both get around it by throwing strikes and trying to rely on the defense.

    Maybe Silva was lucky in the early years, unlucky in the middle years, and then by the time it all evened out it was apparent that he just wasn’t that good to begin with. Maybe, though, Silva was actually good in the early years but lost just a tiny bit of movement on his sinker, turning it from a groundball-generating pitch to batting practice. (When Morneau was in the home run derby, I thought he should have asked Silva to throw to him; he was giving up homers to everyone!)

    So yeah, it’ll be interesting to see if Blackburn is comparable enough to Silva to expect a similarly precipitous drop in his value in the coming years. Maybe I’ll make the time to research that.

  9. MarkW February 4th, 2010 12:58 pm

    Rumors flying we are close to signing Hudson!

    Oh boy!

  10. rghrbek February 4th, 2010 3:33 pm

    http://www.startribune.com/blogs/83576407.html?elr=KArksi8cyaiUo8cyaiUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aULPQL7PQLanchO7DiUr

    I will fill my pants if this happens. I can’t believe the Indians are our competition. Remember last year when we said the Cubs wanted way way too much for DeRosa? Then we find out the Indians got him for a song of 3 crappy prospects?

    The indians are going to be really, really bad next year, can’t believe he would even consider them. Money talks though!

  11. sirsean February 4th, 2010 3:41 pm

    Another thing that talks is media exposure, and the national media is convinced that the AL Central will be really “competitive” in 2010; for some reason, the Indians get a lot of credit for building a talented roster despite repeatedly and consistently disappointing results on the field. Presumably, Hudson is getting his news from one of the many sources who think the Indians aren’t that far back in the Central; it’s even possible that he’s hearing from people who don’t think the Twins are even the favorite.

    I hope Bill Smith is making the point to him that the Twins are already the best team in the division, probably by a considerable margin, and by adding Hudson would put themselves over the top and become one of the top teams in the league.

    My guess is that Smith is, instead, trying to convince Hudson that $3M > $7M.

    I really hope he signs, but I’m not going to get too worked up about it until it happens.

  12. rghrbek February 4th, 2010 3:51 pm

    Sirsean,

    agreed. part of being a twins fan is not getting to worked up when you really want a guy who makes all the sense in the world.

    Still, this would make us a threat, not just to win the division, but also has post season ramifications.

  13. sirsean February 4th, 2010 3:56 pm

    Oh absolutely, this deal would definitely give us a (better) chance to win some playoff games.

    You’d think that the marginal value of each additional playoff win would cause Smith to keep pushing forward. We’re right on the knife’s edge here, where every additional dollar we spend is highly likely to bring back much more than that in revenue with additional playoff wins.

  14. Ragstoriches February 4th, 2010 4:04 pm

    Okay, I’m going to remain calm here BUT let’s be wildy optimistic for a minute and PRETEND we are going to sign Hudson. So, Hudson becomes our starting 2B. Awesome. No more Punto. MFing right, doggie. Let’s say it again: no more Punto.

    BUT:

    Gardy’s going to start him at 3rd, isn’t he?

    Please, someone tell me (theoretically) that no no, Gardy wouldn’t do that to us. Please.

  15. sirsean February 4th, 2010 4:10 pm

    If we sign Hudson, Punto/Harris will platoon at 3B until June or so, when Valencia gets called up.

    We’ll be treading water up until that point, and all Twins fans will be complaining bitterly about various things, and then in early June the team will finally be completed, Punto & Harris will be comfortably on the bench, and we’re going to rip off a 21 wins in 24 games stretch and take the division by the horns.

    In the Twins’ world, the season really starts on June 1. That philosophy won’t have to change unless and until the rest of the division starts putting together teams that can compete with us in something other than “size of the payroll.”

  16. rghrbek February 4th, 2010 4:18 pm

    Gardy’s love for LNP knows no bounds. Instead of getting him 250/300 at bats being a super sub, a job Nick has done well in the past, he will instead, platoon him, as mentioned above with Harris (note: since he’s bats left as well, he will get 2 to 1 the at bats that Harris gets). Not to mention that he will be a defensive replacement for Harris late in games.

    On top of this, he will still be sub#1 at SS and 2nd base. He could get 450 at bats, easy, and Gardy keeps him happy and their relationship can continue to develop.

  17. sirsean February 4th, 2010 4:20 pm

    If you want to get really angry, you can just think ahead to next winter, when Punto will be a free agent again.

    What are the odds he re-signs with the Twins?

  18. rghrbek February 4th, 2010 4:27 pm

    tried posting earlier and it didn’t go thru:

    Gardy’s love for LNP knows no bounds. Instead of getting him 250/300 at bats being a super sub, a job Nick has done well in the past, he will instead, platoon him, as mentioned above with Harris (note: since he’s bats left as well, he will get 2 to 1 the at bats that Harris gets). Not to mention that he will be a defensive replacement for Harris late in games.

    On top of this, he will still be sub#1 at SS and 2nd base. He could get 450 at bats, easy, and Gardy keeps him happy and their relationship can continue to develop.

  19. rghrbek February 4th, 2010 4:29 pm

    it went thru, may bad, as always I’m mentally challenged.

    Of course he resigns. According to Gardy “he can pick it”.

    And if we get OH, well I doubt we will have him for more than one year, so LNP’s our guy next year!

  20. Ragstoriches February 5th, 2010 7:21 am

    Well looks like this is now officially an issue! Question for the wizards: How do Punto/Harris compare “sabermetrically” at 3B? Not that this will have any influence on Gardy’s thinking, because Nicky will get the majority of the playing time regardless of performance, but I’m inclined to believe Punto’s value (miniscule as it is, in a starting capacity) is greatly diminished at 3B vs. 2B or even SS.

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