Don't underestimate Francisco Liriano

March, 1, 2011
3/01/11
12:00
PM ET
Reports are beginning to surface about trade talks between the Yankees and Twins involving Francisco Liriano. The reports also mention the names Ivan Nova and Joba Chamberlain. Sorry folks, but those two names don't belong in the same breath as Liriano's.

It has been a long road back from Tommy John surgery for Liriano, but in 2010 he finally got back on track. After missing all of the 2007 season, he came back to post very respectable numbers (3.91 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 2.09 K/BB rate), albeit, ones that were far from his pre-surgery dominance. In 2009, however, Liriano took a step backward. The left-hander continued to shy away from his slider, a pitch that he had thrown over 36 percent of the time in his first two big league seasons. And the 94-97 mph velocity that he came to the big leagues with? It was down to the low 90s. Liriano also lost command of his pitches, leaving balls out over the plate far too often, which resulted in a 1.38 HR/9 and a walk rate of 4.3 batter per nine innings pitched.

Then, after the 2009 season, Liriano spent the winter pitching in the Dominican League where he showed a glimpse of the dominant pitcher he once was. Since he was facing inferior offensive talent, compared to the big leagues, the key stat of note was his stellar walk rate. He walked only five batters in 37 innings, a trend that continued into the 2010 regular season to go along with a continued progression in velocity and strikeouts.

[+] EnlargeFrancisco Liriano
Hannah Foslien /Getty ImagesFrancisco Liriano's K/9 was the seventh best in baseball last season.
Don't let Liriano's 14-10 record and 3.62 ERA fool you -- he was much more dominant than that last season. Not only did Liriano regain his command, but he regained confidence in his slider, which he threw about 34 percent of the time. His slider also regained it's effectiveness, but his fastball now featured more horizontal and vertical movement, acting more like a two-seam fastball as opposed to a standard four-seam fastball. As a result, Liriano posted a career best 53.6 percent ground-ball rate and a career-best 0.42 HR/9 rate. Based on those stats and a 19 percent line drive rate against, it seems that Liriano may have run into a bit of randomness (bad luck) in 2010 based on a high .331 BABIP against. With Danny Valencia at third full time, the combination of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla up the middle and a healthy Justin Morneau at first, Liriano should see much better results on his balls in play in 2011.

How did Liriano compare to the best in the business in 2010 (minimum 100 IP)?

Liriano's K/9 was the seventh best in baseball and his HR/9 was the fourth best in the game. He was the fifth best at getting hitters to chase pitches outside the strike-zone while generating the highest percentage of whiffs-per-swing of any starting pitcher in baseball.

If you combine the factors that make up a dominant pitcher (factors within their control), Liriano was one of the best pitchers in the game last season.

The Twins may still have their reservations, apparently. They may see a pitcher who throws a lot of sliders -- the pitch that quite possibly induced his injury back in 2006 -- and is getting expensive while approaching free agency. Still, for a team that looks to contend once again in 2011, the Twins would have to be punch drunk to trade their ace -- and one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball right now -- for the likes of Ivan Nova or Joba Chamberlain. Even a package of Nova and Chamberlain would seem miles away from the type of value they should expect in return.

If the Yanks are indeed serious contenders to land Liriano, the players that should be mentioned are Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances. The cream of the crop.

Don't underestimate Francisco Liriano. At 27 years of age, he is once again one of the most dominant pitchers in the game.

Charlie Saponara contributes to Fire Brand of the American League, a blog about the Boston Red Sox. You can follow him on Twitter.

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