Last April, when basically no one was reading this blog, I wrote what I still consider to be an interesting piece on Francisco Liriano and his ability -- or inability -- to throw first pitch strikes. The long and short of the post was that, when Liriano had his couple good seasons, he often got ahead in the count with a first pitch strike; and when he had subpar seasons, he often fell behind in the count with a first pitch ball. If you have 5 minutes, it's worth a read (or so I think).
I wrote that piece on April 19, just a couple weeks into the season. I noted that, as of that date, Liriano had throw first-pitch strikes to 49.5% of batters. I compared that to his 2010 percentage, which was 61.7%. We all know that, for Liriano, the rest of 2011 was a pretty big disappointment. Yes, he threw a no-hitter, but even in that game, he walked 6 batters, threw a ton of pitches, and only struck out 2. I believed it in April, and I still believe it now: for Liriano, throwing a first-pitch strike around 60% of the time is a major key to his success.
I wanted to update my April post with some new data on Liriano and others with respect to this stat. So, how did Liriano fare for 2011? Not well. His first strike percentage was just 49.4% last season. That means that Liriano fell behind in the count just over half the time. If you're a fan who watches most games, you probably would believe that statistic, because for me, it sure felt that way. For comparison, let's see how this year's Cy Young award winners fared: Tigers' ace Justin Verlander threw a first pitch strike 61.4% of the time, and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw did the same 64.1% of the time. Both these figures are higher than the player's career average (in Kershaw's case, 64.1% represented a nearly 4% increase over his career average -- very impressive).
Liriano's career average is 56%, which is not fantastic. I do, however, think it's important to note that, in and of itself, there is nothing great about throwing first pitch strikes all the time. To be sure, batters will sit and wait on a first pitch fastball if they know that, time and time again, one is coming. It doesn't matter if you throw 88 or 98 miles per hour; major leaguers will figure it out eventually. Here's the first few in the list of 2011 first strike leaders: Kyle Lohse; Carl Pavano; Roy Halladay; Colby Lewis; Bartolo Colon; Josh Tomlin. As you can see, some are good pitchers, some are above average, some are below average, and some have actually been members of the Twins (coincidence?). Pavano is illustrative of the fact that a high first strike percentage doesn't necessarily equate to a low ERA or a high win total. You have to be able to record outs after you get ahead in counts, and that's where trouble can begin.
But for Liriano, that's exactly why I think the first-strike percentage is so important. Pavano, for example, doesn't have a great fastball, or a strikeout pitch like Liriano's slider. He relies on control and getting hitters to make contact on the pitch he wants them to swing at. Same with some of the others on the list. Liriano, when he is good, is more like a Verlander than a Pavano. That first pitch strike allows him to expand the zone, get hitters to chase at tough strikes and balls, and to go for the strikeout, perhaps with that great slider in the dirt. Falling behind 1-0 more than half the time leads to walks and hits, which is what we saw a lot of in 2011.
First pitch strikes are not a cure-all for Francisco Liriano. I think he needs a different coaching strategy, he may need the assistance of a sports psychologist to help him get through the first inning of games without incident, and he certainly does not need to be instructed to "pitch to contact," whatever you believe that term means. But first pitch strikes for Liriano are similar to a Denard Span walk to lead off an inning: good things will often happen. My prediction is that if Liriano can deliver around 60% first pitch strikes, he will have a good 2012 season. First pitch strikes are indicative of a general command of the strike zone, and I think that we can all agree that Liriano is his best when he exhibits that command.