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Liriano’s return: Take Two

When Francisco Liriano returned from Tommy John surgery on April 13 to take the mound against the Royals for his first MLB start since September of 2006, he predictably struggled with both velocity and command. His average fastball clocked in at just 90.2 miles per hour and failed to crack 90 one-third of the time. His once-unhittable slider never registered higher than 82 miles per hour on MLB.com’s radar gun and averaged just 80.7.

Liriano also struggled to find the plate against Kansas City, throwing just 51 of 90 pitches for strikes, walking a career-high five of the 25 batters he faced, and allowing five runs while failing to make it out of the fifth inning. He had better results while showing the same decreased velocity and shaky control against the Indians on April 18, but when a disastrous start against the A’s followed on April 24, he was demoted back to Triple-A with an ugly 0-3 record, 11.32 ERA, and .366 opponent’s batting average.

Liriano’s first few outings at Rochester weren’t particularly encouraging, but he eventually got on track about 18 months after surgery. In 11 starts between June and July, Liriano went 10-0 with a 2.67 ERA and 80-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 70.2 innings. Amid complaints that the Twins were keeping him at Rochester longer than necessary and gnashing of teeth over when the team would dump Livan Hernandez from the rotation, Liriano returned to the majors Sunday afternoon against the Indians.

Six shutout innings later and it looks like Liriano is back for good this time, although he was far from as dominant as the scoreless box score line suggests. He struggled to consistently find the plate, tossing first-pitch strikes to just eight of 24 batters, running the count to 3-0 four times, and throwing just 56 of 96 pitches for strikes overall. He also labored after a quick first two innings, using 77 pitches in his last four frames and failing to strike out any of the final 10 batters he faced.

While six shutout innings and a victory that propelled the Twins into first place for the first time since May 13 are results that could have been lifted straight from the middle of Liriano’s amazing 2006 run, in truth he barely resembled the pitcher who overpowered the league as a rookie. Of course, Liriano also barely resembled the pitcher who was a complete mess in April, and there’s no doubt that he’s made tremendous strides in the months since.

In his first post-surgery outing, MLB.com’s pitch-tracking system clocked Liriano’s average fastball at 90.2 miles per hour and showed that every third fastball was in the 80s. Sunday his average fastball was 91 miles per hour and just seven of 59 fastballs failed to touch at least 90. An increase of 0.8 miles per hour on his average fastball may not seem like much and made it clear that recent reports about his velocity were obviously exaggerated.

Two weeks ago, LaVelle E. Neal III reported that his “fastball averaged 93 miles per hour and topped out at 95” in a start at Triple-A. He also quoted Rochester manager Stu Cliburn as saying that he “hit 99 on the gun” on one pitch. Meanwhile, Sunday afternoon Liriano averaged 91 miles per hour, topped out at 93 and came nowhere near 99. Sadly that’s nothing new, as this winter was filled with reports of Liriano supposedly throwing in the mid-90s before he arrived at spring training working in the high-80s.

No longer having to rely on reports filled with hype and jacked-up velocity readings, we now know that Liriano’s fastball has improved 0.8 miles per hour since April while remaining 3.7 mph off, compared with his 2006 heater. As Ron Gardenhire put it after watching Liriano work between 87 and 93 miles per hour Sunday: “This first year [after surgery] is kind of hit and miss. Maybe next year you’re going to see everything step up even more. Right now, I think [he’s missing] velocity more than anything.”

If nothing else, he’s had a tangible change in velocity heading in the right direction, however minimal. Plus, more encouraging than the relatively modest gains on his fastball is that Liriano’s slider looked much different than the curve-like breaking ball that he shied away from using in April. On April 13, his slider averaged 80.7 miles per hour and had very little bite to it, but Sunday’s version averaged 83.6 miles per hour while diving out of the strike zone often enough to bring back memories of 2006.

At its peak, Liriano’s slider averaged 87.7 mph, leaving Sunday’s version even further away from his 2006 levels than his fastball. However, as with the fastball Liriano is clearly moving in the right direction with his slider, and even 4.1 mph less than his 2006 velocity, the pitch was tough to hit. Four of his five strikeouts came on sliders, as he got one left-handed hitter (Grady Sizemore) and three right-handed hitters (Ben Francisco, Kelly Shoppach, Andy Gonzalez) to swing over the pitch with two strikes.

With that said, a depleted Indians lineup featuring the likes of Gonzalez, Shoppach and Jamey Carroll instead of Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, and Casey Blake is hardly a tough test at this point. “As we go along, we’re going to see some veteran teams that don’t swing,” Gardenhire said. “They’re going to take pitches, and those are going to be challenges for him to throw more pitches over the plate.” While true, he’ll get another favorable matchup against an even lesser lineup Saturday versus the Royals.

The good news is that Liriano’s second return to the majors was a massive improvement over his first attempt, and the pitcher who took the mound Sunday afternoon is clearly capable of having long-term success. The bad news is that pitchers often return from Tommy John surgery throwing even harder than before, and by the 20-month mark, many of them have regained their pre-surgery form, but Liriano has done neither and now has question marks attached to his future upside.

Compared with the pitcher who was rushed back in April, he was hugely improved and compared with the washed-up veteran who was bumped from the rotation he represents a sizable upgrade. However, compared with the guy who was arguably baseball’s best pitcher in 2006, he still has a very long way to go even after taking a big first (or second) step Sunday. As Nick Punto put it after watching Liriano’s first win since July 23, 2006: “Liriano at 80 percent is better than a lot of pitchers in the big leagues.”

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