There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face.
By now, Liriano is known league-wide for his great stuff and results that only sometimes match. For his career, his 4.33 ERA is well above his 3.69 FIP. That's twice the difference of Javy Vazquez, well known around these parts for the same problem. In figuring out Liriano's exact value to the White Sox, figuring out where that difference comes from is essential. It's obvious that the aspects of pitching not captured by of his strike outs, walks and home runs allowed have been a drag on his career. But how and why?
For starters, that 0.64 runs/9 difference is maybe more like a 0.4 true difference after regressing somewhat. Still bigger than Javy's career line, but at least a bit more manageable. FIP, you may recall, estimates the runs a pitcher should allow just using strikeouts, walks and home runs as inputs. That means the difference in his ERA is rooted elsewhere. The remaining culprits are BABIP and pitching with runners on base.
His career BABIP is .306 while the AL average from ‘06-’12 excluding ‘07 is .297. I'm excluding '07 because he was injured that season. That’s over the 2200 balls in play he's allowed, or a difference of like 20 non-HR base hits. We said that there’s an approximately .4 run difference per 9 innings in his FIP and his true ERA talent. Over his career (783.3 IP), that’s a 35 run difference. Could those 20 base hits could have been worth 35 runs?
To find out, we need to know the run values of base hits over outs, which means we need to know linear weights. Here are the original run values for events above an out calculated in the Book:
Those aren’t exact for the seasons Liriano has pitched, but it's good enough for government work. 35 runs per 20 base hits is 1.75 runs per base hit. Given that not even a HR is that valuable, we can't explain all of Liriano's problems with BABIP. But it does go a long way. 15 singles and 5 doubles (a reasonable distribution) is 17 runs.
Now, that's 17 runs on average. If your timing sucks and you, whether through luck or skill, tend to give those base hits up with men on base, that 17 could be far worse. Remember Javy's incredible penchant for the blow up inning? About as much fun as reading a blog post full of arcane arithmetic. Most indications we have suggest that pitching from the stretch is barely different than pitching without runners on, so ascribing a cause for the issue is difficult.
And but so it turns out he tends to give up more base hits than expected and on top of that, he doesn’t do a great job of pitching to the situation. Which is kind of weird, right? We know he's got great stuff and you might be inclined to think that suggests he should have skills in preventing base hits. Stuff that's hard to hit should also be hard to hit hard.
In Liriano's case it doesn't hold. Somehow, hitters when they do make contact, are doing an unexpectedly good job of hitting the ball hard. And, worse, they seem to tend to do it more often with runners on base. Over the course of his career, it's made the difference between being good and great. On top of that, he's had some bad luck and that makes things look even worse.
Given the symptoms, there are two areas in need of examination: mechanics and mentality.
As regards the former, feel free to google "Francisco Liriano mechanics" and peruse at your leisure. The headlines read something like "sorting out mechanics aids Liriano". Which, like, if he were actually able to do that, you'd think that kind of story would be somewhat less prevalent.
Evidently, we should expect those kinds of issues. It will be hard to pick them out though. Without watching in super slow motion, the only thing to do is to watch a ton of pitches. Eventually your sub-conscious will start flagging the bad ones for you. That's my method anyway.
Fortunately, I'm not the White Sox pitching coach, Don Cooper is. And as often seems to be the case, he seems to have picked out a few things he thinks he can fix. Whether or not they prove fixable will likely come down to Liriano's mental and emotional capacity for learning and trust. Guys who have mental issues may or may not mesh well and if they don’t experience success rapidly, they may not see any reason to trust his coaching.
I can't speak to Liriano's abilities in that regard, though I think his performance certainly leaves open the possibility that he's lacking in it somewhat. Remember, he's getting hit hard in spite of his stuff, not because of it. Maybe he's the kind of guy who throws sliders because he likes throwing sliders, misses early in the count and is forced to throw fastballs in fastball counts as a result. That kind of guy may or may not take well to coaching.
The bottom line is that it doesn't matter too much. The Sox absolutely needed to add some depth to their staff with Sale's velocity issues and the variety of injuries afflicting the roster. With no change, he's probably a slightly below average starter. If Coop can fix him, his upside is huge and they may score some trust that leads to a contract in 2013 and beyond.
Oh, and we discovered that the answer to the question "Can a high ceiling solid floor veteran starter be acquired for something less than Dan Hudson?" is yes. Everything's coming up Milhouse!