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Fransisco Liriano in 2010

By Craig Tacheny

As April and Opening Day inch closer, it’s time for what my friends and I like to call Optimistic Twins Talk, or OTT. It’s a simple concept, really: we get together and discuss our favorite team in nothing but the most positive of ways, completely ignoring the chance that anything bad could happen.

Example one: “Delmon Young lost 30 lbs. this offseason, he’s poised to have a breakout year.” We’ll ignore the fact that weight loss has absolutely nothing to do with Young’s plate discipline or OPS.

Example two: “If J.J. Hardy returns to his All-star form, the Twins are a lock for the division title.” This is a pretty big “if.” Hardy played AAA last year and his odds of making a huge improvement after being traded to a better division in a superior league are not great.

My favorite OTT topic this winter has by far been Fransisco Liriano and his apparent reemergence as a dominant pitcher (0.49 ERA, 47 Ks in 37 winter league innings). This has been the one conversation that I’m finding it hard to poke holes in. Most OTT is in fact, just talk, with no real basis behind it. But with Liriano, it’s different. I truly believe Liriano is ready to once again become a viable option in the Twins’ rotation.

Liriano wasn’t good last year (.830 opponent OPS, 75 ERA+), there’s no doubt about it. But look a little closer at the numbers and you’ll see that he wasn’t as bad as you may have thought.

Take a look:

Batters hit .324 on balls in play (BABIP) against him last year; the league average was just .303. Translation: a lot of hitters were lucky against Liriano.

He had a strand rate (LOB%), the percentage of base runners he kept from scoring, of 66.3 percent last year, while the league average was 71.9 percent.

He gave up home runs on 12.5 percent of the fly balls he allowed, which was good enough for 84th among pitchers who pitched at least 130 innings. The league average was 9.64 percent.

If history is a good indicator, and it usually is, Liriano’s numbers in these categories will regress to the mean: he’ll give up fewer hits on balls in play or with runners on, and more of the fly balls he allows will stay in the park. In turn, his more traditional numbers like ERA and wins should improve as well.

Not only was he unlucky last year, but some of his stats from last year were actually very good. He struck out 8.03 batters per nine innings in 2009. That’s more than Johan Santana, CC Sabathia or Roy Halladay.

His slider, the one announcers like to say lost its bite since his Tommy John surgery, was actually pretty good, too. According to Pitch F/x, it was worth 8.4 runs above average, which is not as good as 2006 (a preposterous 23 runs above average), but still better than Anaheim’s Jered Weaver or NL Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum.

Look, I’m not letting the guy entirely off the hook for his putrid 2009; he walked too many batters (4.28 BB/9) and pitched poorly out of the stretch, allowing a .945 OPS with runners on base – the league was essentially Ryan Braun against him with runners on. But when you look at his season a little deeper, you’ll see that there’s a lot to be optimistic about, and a lot less to fear than you may have previously thought.

Let the OTT commence.

Stats courtesy of fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com

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