Yankees Whiff on Scouting Report vs. Francisco Liriano

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog; follow me on Twitter at@williamnyy23).

During Joe Girardi’s WCBS pre-game interview with Suzyn Waldman, the Yankees’ manager talked about his lineup’s need for patience when facing White Sox lefty Francisco Liriano. The game plan was correct, but executing it proved to be easier said than done.

You gotta lay off the pitches that appear to be strikes. I always talked about it when he was in Minnesota. He was the one guy that had the ability to throw pitches that look like strikes but ended up being balls. He is going to run his fastball off the plate to right handers and his change-up is going to be below the zone. If you can lay off them, you’re gonna get some free baserunners.” – Joe Girardi, WCBS radio, August 21, 2012

After throwing over 30 pitches in the first inning of last night’s game, Liriano seemed destined for an early shower. However, unlike his previous start against the Yankees, which lasted only 2 1/3 innings, Liriano settled down to throw five shutout innings after allowing two runs in the opening frame. And, just as Girardi’s scouting report indicated, one of the main reasons he was able to survive the rocky beginning was because of his ability to throw pitches off the plate that must have looked like strikes to the flailing Yankee batters.

Francisco Liriano Pitch/FX Chart: Swinging Strikes

Source: www.joelefkowitz.com

By the time Liriano’s evening was over, he had induced the Yankees to swing and miss at 11 pitches out of the strike zone, which matched the Orioles’ Miguel Gonzalez for the highest total recorded against the Bronx Bombers by one pitcher in a single game. The main culprit for the Yankees was Robinson Cano, who whiffed on four pitches out of the zone, including three times in his first at bat. The struggling second baseman had plenty of company, however, as Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher, Jayson Nix, and Casey McGehee all came up empty on at least one pitch off the plate.

One area where Girardi’s scouting report was a little off was his focus on Liriano’s fastball and change-up. Of the 11 swings and misses out of the zone, nine came on the slider, a pitch he used more frequently than in his last outing versus the Yankees. In total, Liriano threw 39 sliders, or 35% of the total count, and 27, including 13 whiffs (11 out of the zone and two in the zone), resulted in a strike. In his previous start against the Yankees while still with the Twins, Liriano threw 20 sliders, or 26%, of which only six were strikes (and no whiffs). In that game, the Yankees also made contact over 50% of the time when swinging at pitches out of the zone, compared to only 31.3% last night.

Most Swings and Misses Out of the Zone versus the Yankees, 2012

Note: Data is per game per pitcher.
Source: www.joelefkowitz.com and www.brooksbaseball.net

The Yankees’ 31.3% contact rate on pitches out of the zone was Liriano’s fourth lowest of the season (among starts). In the three games with lower rates, the left hander posted game scores of 68, 72, and 73, further confirming the importance of whiffs on balls off the plate to Liriano’s success. In fact, for the entire season, the opposition’s contact rate on pitches out of the zone has exhibited a notable inverse correlation (coefficient of -0.68) to the lefty’s game score.

Francisco Liriano’s O-Contact% vs. Game Score, 2012
  
Source: fangraphs.com and baseball-referene.com

Correlation of Various Plate Discipline Ratios to Game Score

Note: For an explanation of plate discipline metrics, click here.
Source: fangraphs.com and baseball-referene.com

Since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006, Liriano’s career has been dogged by inconsistency, not only from start to start, but sometimes from inning to inning. As the White Sox head down the stretch, they’ll need the lefty to have more outings like he did last night, which means he will need to keep generating lots of swings and misses. Every teams knows the scouting report, but as the Yankees found at last night, when Liriano is at his best, it’s not hard to come up empty.