For I think the 5th time already - Francisco Liriano is not "back to 2006 form".
Any baseball fan remembers that 2006 Summer where most were looking forward to that first start back for Houston Astro Roger Clemens. Nationally televised game, ESPN making it all about "The Rocket" (before the McNamee/Steroids drama, mind you) facing off this kid Liriano that hardly anyone had seen, just that he had a good record in just a very small sample of games, and a slider that could only be characterized as "nasty". Once that game finished, however, fans knew exactly who this kid was - 8 IP, 4 H, 2 R, and 7 K's; he completely out shined any sort of homecoming for Clemens.
That half of a season, Francisco put up gaudy numbers at just 22 years of age - a 12-3 record with a 2.16 ERA, a WHIP of 1, with 144 strikeouts in 121 innings. It was a July 26th game against the Detroit Tigers, where Liriano felt a tingle in his left elbow, that resulted in Tommy John's surgery sidelining him for the entire 2007 season.
After missing 2007, Liriano was back to start the 2008 season with some promising numbers in Winter ball as well as Spring Training (the first "He's back to 2006 form" whispers are made), enough for manager Ron Gardenhire to make him a starter. First three starts into the season, against poor offenses of Kansas City, Cleveland, and Oakland - A combined 0-3 record, 10 1/3 IP, 13 ER, and 13 walks compared to 7 strikeouts. Now, I can understand it's been more than a year that Liriano hadn't pitched in a ML setting, but it just clearly meant Francisco was not ready yet. A straight fastball, an average change-up, along with a slow curveball were the only pitches that were utilized. Those "nasty" hard sliders that was his pitch to success? Used a total of 12 times in those three starts. Inability of a slider, low confidence, were among the reasons why Liriano was sent down to the Minors until the beginning of August.
August of 08 provided some promise, as his first four starts earned him four straight wins, but he was unable to get through 6 innings without throwing over 90 pitches. Walks were still a continuing problem in the latter part of the 08 season (hence the high pitch counts) as well, and he ended the 2008 campaign extremely disappointed overall, but some to look forward to for the 2009 season.
Spring training of 2009 was attempt number two in saying Liriano was "back", the numbers and control in the Spring was enough to begin the season as a starter again. The beginning of the season, without really anymore excuse or patience from a Tommy John's recovery? An 0-4 record, 21 2/3 innings, 17 ER, 9 walks compared 11 strikeouts. However, it was once again the pitch count that became the biggest problem of Liriano's game - averaging over 17 pitches an inning for the entire season.
This time it was not enough to be sent down to the Minors again, however.
Instead, Gardenhire sticks with Liriano and ends May with a 2-7 record finishing those last three starts to the month with 4 innings each giving up a total of 16 runs. In June, Twins fans saw some promise again from Francisco, and it was just two starts for upper management and those closest with the team to deem Liriano "back" for the third time. What did he do to be considered back? 2 wins against the Brewers and Cardinals where he gave up 5 runs in 11 IP and 7 walks vs. 6 strikeouts. More importantly though, his fastball was still flat, change-up and curveball were not adding anything to his repertoire and his slider was finally starting to dip and get to the back leg of righties.
Eventually, the slider wore off, and Liriano was down to just one major league pitch - a fastball with little to no movement that he had a tough time controlling at anytime in the game. It resulted in a 1-4 second half, including a 2 inning showing against the Texas Rangers where he gave up 7 runs to finally relinquish his starter role. Liriano spent September and one appearance in October as a long to middle reliever and only played in one game that resulted in a Twins' win.
Now, we see the 2010 MLB season getting ready to start (just over two weeks until pitchers and catchers start reporting), and one main story, for the Twins at least, is that Francisco Liriano is "back" once again. (ESPN.com's Eric Karabell has already deemed Liriano the #1 bounce-back starting pitcher) Liriano fanned 10 hitters in just 5 innings giving up 1 hit for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League championship last night. His slider was finally back to a large bite and was getting the types of swing and misses I saw in 2006. But is that enough for me to think Liriano is actually going to start this season at top form? No, not quite.
I'm not even entirely sure Liriano is deserving of a starting role to begin this next season. The first four are already set in my mind: Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn. The 5th spot is the one where I think best fits left-hander Brian Duensing. While less ML experience (last year was his very first stint at the Majors), Duensing is older in age, and in my opinion, maturity and straight-up pitching "smarts" to be an exceptional to good fifth starter. Brian only started 9 games while playing in 24 last season with a 5-2 record and an ERA just over 3.5. In other words, I'm just a big believer in Duensing and haven't had the disappointment like I have in Liriano.
I do find it a very strong possibility though that Gardenhire still chooses Liriano over Duensing by the beginning of this season - if his slider is to that Winter ball standard, and if he can keep himself mentally into the game, and if he can figure out how to use a slow curve or a change up with his fastball/slider, then I could not disagree with that decision at all. But there are just a lot of if's out there, and just how these past 2 1/2 years have gone for Francisco since his surgery, I refuse to be that much of a believer.