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Strikeouts and grounders: Twins’ Francisco Liriano is dealing again

Time will obviously tell if he can keep it up, but right now the Twins have a 26-year-old pitching ace.

I’ve often suggested that the Francisco Liriano who was the best, most overpowering pitcher in all of baseball as a rookie in 2006 was lost for good when he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery. I still believe that to be true, but a) the version we’ve seen so far this year is pretty damn close to the extraordinarily dominant 2006 version of him.

What made Liriano so incredibly special then is that he both led the league in strikeout rate and ranked fifth in ground-ball percentage, which is essentially the perfect combination. After returning from surgery in 2008-09, he lost about one-fifth of his strikeouts, saw his fastball and slider velocity decline 3 to 4 miles per hour and actually turned into a fly-ball pitcher, with his ground-ball rate going from 55 percent to 40 percent.

In other words, not only did his raw stuff and on-field results change for the worse with a drop in velocity and a 5.12 post-surgery ERA, he was actually a different type of pitcher. Thankfully, it looks like he’s back to missing bats and killing worms. After a mediocre season debut, Liriano has won three straight starts and thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings while allowing just 14 hits and five walks, racking up 24 strikeouts and 32 ground-ball outs in those 23 frames.

4/15 BOS 7.0 0 4 8 2 10 96
4/21 CLE 8.0 0 6 6 2 13 102
4/26 DET 8.0 0 4 10 1 9 112

Now, even 24 strikeouts and 32 ground-ball outs in 23 innings can’t compare to what he did in 2006, and Liriano’s velocity also isn’t quite back to his pre-surgery levels, but that just shows how insanely great he was back then. For the past three starts, he’s averaged 93 to 94 miles per hour on his fastball with a strikeout per inning and nearly twice as many grounders as fly balls, which is absolutely, without question the recipe for top-of-the-rotation dominance.

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Time will obviously tell if he can keep it up, but right now the Twins have a 26-year-old ace.

Minor league report

• After playing short-handed for a week, the Twins finally placed Nick Punto on the disabled list Friday, calling up Luke Hughes from Triple-A to fill his roster spot. In the past, Punto has often tried to play through injuries, resulting in the odd combination of a horrible performance being praised, but this time he at least managed to stay out of the lineup with a strained groin while Brendan Harris filled in at third base.

Danny Valencia is a better prospect than Hughes, but the Twins think he needs more work on defense and he’s hitting just .176 at Triple-A. Plus, because Punto may not miss a ton of time Hughes makes more sense in much the same way Drew Butera filling in for the injured Jose Morales makes more sense than calling up Wilson Ramos to back up Joe Mauer. Valencia isn’t as promising as Ramos, but if the Twins do call him up, they’ll want it to be for years not weeks.

None of which is to suggest that Hughes is any more ready than Valencia to be a starting third baseman in the majors, because his glove generally receives even worse reviews and his bat projects similarly. However, he’s a better candidate to sit on the bench for a couple of weeks and Ron Gardenhire would stick with Harris at third base until Punto returns no matter the call-up. I’d like to see Hughes get some starts at designated hitter or left field against lefties.

For more on Hughes, see my write-up ranking him as the No. 23 prospect in the Twins’ system.

• I’ve long speculated that the front office is behind Anthony Slama still being in the minors at age 26, because he’s repeatedly been passed over for call-ups and isn’t even on the 40-man roster yet, despite Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson praising him as someone they would like to take a look at. As always, he’s putting up great numbers in the minors with a 1.80 ERA, .147 opponents’ batting average, and 14 strikeouts in 10 innings at Rochester this year.

Combined over the past two years, he now has a 2.57 ERA, .190 opponents’ batting average, and 126 strikeouts in 91 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Much like Pat Neshek back in 2005/2006, high-minors dominance like that simply warrants a shot regardless of skepticism or question marks, but as Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote recently, the front office remains unwilling to call up Slama despite his being Gardenhire’s “preferred pitcher.”