7-14-12: The Curious Case of Francisco Liriano

[Ed.'s Note: This blog was written for, and also published at the "Twins Blog" on]

Francisco Liriano became a member of the Minnesota Twins organization on November 14, 2003, coming over from the San Francisco Giants in a trade for A.J. Pierzynski. He made his big league debut for the Twins on September 5th, 2005 in a relief appearance against the Texas Rangers where he pitched one inning giving up a home run to Gary Matthews while striking out two in what would ultimately be a 7-0 loss for the Twins.

He's been an enigma ever since.

In 2006 - his first full year in the majors - he was nothing short of brilliant. He won 12 games posting a 2.16 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, a strikeout rate of 10.7 per 9 innings, and a 4.50 K/BB ratio. He finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting and was chosen for the first of what most of us figured would be many All Star appearances.

Yet he finished the season suffering from forearm discomfort and pain, which baseball followers have learned is usually the first sign of ligament damage in a pitcher's elbow. Sure enough, on November 6, 2006, nearly three years from the day of his acquisition, Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery which wiped out the entirety of his 2007 season.

2008 was an up-and-down year for Liriano... quite literally. He made his post-surgery debut in April and got rocked by the Royals, lasting only four-and-two-thirds innings. He lasted just two more starts, getting knocked out of his April 24th start against Oakland after just two-thirds of an inning before being sent back to Triple-A Rochester to work on his mechanics.

He made 12 starts with the Red Wings and seemed to be back in 2006 form, posting a 3.28 ERA, a 1.127 WHIP, and striking out 8.6 batters per 9-innings. The Twins brought him back to the majors for an August 3rd start against Cleveland. He got the win in that game, and in fact, cranked out four straight wins, and won six of his last seven decisions in 2008.

Frankie was back! Or was he?

In 2009 he spent the entire season with the Twins, but to say it was a rocky season would be an understatement. His walk rate shot up to 4.3 per nine innings, his home run rate skied to 1.4 per nine innings, and his WHIP rose to an ugly 1.551. All of which added up to a 5-13 record and a 5.80 ERA. A forgettable campaign to say the least.

That winter, Liriano returned to his native Dominican Republic to play in their winter league. It was thought that he needed more innings under his belt to get back to the kind of specific, repeatable mechanics it takes to succeed in the big leagues. Frankie was dominant in winter ball, helping propel his club to a league championship. Yet again, expectations were high for the lefty heading into the 2010 Twins season.

Once more, however, it was a season of streaks for Liriano. He started out hot, and through mid-May was one of the top pitchers in baseball. From that point through the All Star break, he stumbled mightily, dropping five of his seven decisions. After the break, he came back strong, regaining his form and his confidence and reeling off four straight wins, and wins in six of his next 10 starts. He didn't take a loss until September 19th, but lost his last three starts to close out the season.

He was fifth in the AL in strikeouts, posted the lowest home run rate of his career, and even finished 11th in the AL Cy Young balloting. It wasn't a perfect season, but once again, there were hopes that he had turned a corner and was prepared to become a front-line starter for the Twins.

A rough start to 2011 challenged those hopes however, and despite throwing his first career no-hitter against the White Sox on May 3rd, 2011 became yet another sub-par season for Liriano. Once again, his walk rate was at 5 per nine innings, his WHIP was pushing the 1.5 mark and his strikeout rate dropped by nearly two per game. After experiencing some shoulder soreness in late August, Liriano was shut down and spent the rest of the 2011 season resting and rehabbing.

Which brings us to 2012. After another disastrous April and losing five of his first six starts, there was talk of sending Liriano to the minor leagues to work on his game. Due to his service time, however, Liriano had the option to decline such a move and did just so. Instead, he was shipped to the bullpen from whence he made five appearances over the course of May.

On May 30th, the Twins were forced by injuries to bring him back to the starting rotation and were rewarded with six scoreless innings from Liriano in that first start. Since then, Liriano has posted a 2.83 ERA, kept his walk rate under four, has a strikeout rate over 10 and has his WHIP back down to 1.02.

In short, he's been fantastic. Both manager Ron Gardenhire and his fellow teammates cite an increase in confidence and ability to keep the ball down in the zone as the reasons for his improved performance.

Whatever it is, it has the Twins in an interesting position. Liriano is a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. If the Twins were to offer him a contract for 2013, it's speculated it would have to be at a minimum of $12 million to qualify for draft pick compensation. If Liriano were to be able to consistently pitch at his current level, that would be a more than reasonable price.

But that's a big “if”. Liriano's history has been a long string of hot-streaks followed by periods of utterly befuddling play. Can they afford to invest $12+ million in a guy who's shown no ability to sustain his level of play throughout an entire major league season? And would another team be willing to invest more?

That's why scouts were swarming Friday night to watch as Liriano struck out a career-high 15 batters, and still managed to take the loss - a rather appropriate microcosm of Frankie's career, don't you think? Those scouts had to like what they saw from Liriano, and given the reasonable amount of money he's owed, perhaps a team could be persuaded to part with a prospect-package that could help the Twins not only now, but going forward as well.

If the Twins hang on to Liriano for the rest of 2012, offer him a qualifying contract for 2013, and lose him to another team, they would be compensated with a draft pick. But whatever player they use that pick on, likely wouldn't be available to help the team for 3-5 years, if at all.

So if you're GM Terry Ryan, what do you do? Trade Liriano and hope the players you get in return are more stable in their performance? Hold on to Liriano and try to sign him to a short-term contract to minimize the club's risk and accept a compensatory pick if he doesn't agree to that deal? Or try to sign him to a longer-term contract and hope that this time, he really has turned the corner and figured things out?

Decisions like this one can have a significant impact on a club's long-term ability to compete, which will make the next two-and-a-half weeks until the July 31st trading deadline interesting and important.

6-30-12: Let's Play Two!

[Ed.'s Note: Also available at the Twins Blog here.]

“It's a beautiful day for baseball... let's play two!”

Legendary Cubs third baseman Ernie Banks once uttered those famous words, and they became his trademark.

Sadly, his love of that unique institution: the baseball double-header, hasn't been embraced by the folks who run the game these days.

Owners aren't big fans of the natural double-header. Why would they give up an extra set of gate receipts if they don't have to? So if you do see a double-header, you can bet it was forced upon them by inclement weather. And you can also count on it being a “day-night” or “split” double-header, with just enough time in between games for the ballpark staff to clear out the fans from Game 1 and get things set for a completely new set of fans for Game 2.

Players don't care for them much either. Considering how early they generally arrive for a standard game, playing two makes for quite a long day. (I know, your heart breaks for them, doesn't it?)

But ask any fan, and they'll tell you that they love double-headers. For baseball purists, there isn't much they'd rather do than spend a few hours out at the ballpark. So if they can double that pleasure, and spend all day at “the yard”, why not, right?


6-20-12: 2012 All Star Ballot

Hello again everybody...

The All Star Game is quickly approaching, so I wanted to make sure to publish my ballot while there's still time to vote!

I decided to simplify my approach this year by strictly ranking players based on their WAR (Wins Above Replacement).  It's a convenient, holistic statistic that - while not perfect - is as good a single-stat number as is currently available.

As it turned out, it did a fair job of assembling my ballot.  What does that look like, you ask?

Let me show you...

American League:

First Base:  Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox

As much as I hate voting for a player from the South side, this one's a complete no-brainer.  The guy's leading the league in batting average and on-base percentage on a team that's contending for their division title.

I believe Prince Fielder is currently leading the voting, Adrian Gonzalez will get some votes by virtue of having a pulse and playing in Boston, and Albert Pujols will garner some attention by virtue of being Albert Pujols.

I'll put Konerko's track record up against any of them and feel quite confident with that pick.


6-10-12: Interleague Play

On June 12, 1997, the Texas Rangers hosted the San Francisco Giants in the first of what's become a series of nearly 4000 non-World Series games played between American League and National League teams - or as we know it: Interleague Play.

The purists hate it. The casual fans love it. Bottom line, the turnstiles spin and cash registers ring in record numbers when teams from the opposing leagues come to town. In 2011 teams saw an average increase of 3,300 fans per game when they were playing a club from the opposite league.

The Subway Series was renewed again this past weekend as the Yankees hosted the Mets. Fenway Park was jam-packed to see Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals visit the Red Sox. Even here at Target Field, in a season where good seats have often been available, numbers ticked up as the Cubs visited Minnesota.

Sure, some of the match-ups stink - I doubt they were threatening attendance records in Pittsburgh when Kansas City comes to town. Then again, is that all that dissimilar to when Kansas City visits Oakland, or when Pittsburgh hosts Houston? I doubt it.

5-27-12: Memorial Day

[Ed.'s Note: Also posted at:]

Memorial Day is the traditional “quarter pole” in the Major League Baseball season. It marks the point where the sorting out of contenders from pretenders truly begins.

For teams having seasons like the Twins are, it's a time to start evaluating the roster for trade possibilities with which they can begin to restock with young talent. For teams having seasons like the Tigers, it's a time to figure out why they've underachieved and what pieces need to be added in order to reach the lofty goals they'd set coming out of spring training.

But as we all know, Memorial Day is about a lot more than just baseball. Tracing it's origins to the “Decoration Day” of the post-Civil War era, Memorial Day was established to honor the men and women who've lost their lives in the service of their country's military. For many of us, it's grown to become a holiday on which we honor the memory of all those who served, whether they died in service or not.

Baseball has a long tradition of honoring the men and women of the armed forces, including some of the men who've played the grand old game.


5-12-12: Look At The Bright Side...

Every Friday at 5:45pm on WCCO Radio, John Williams has his weekly “Bright Side of Life” segment, where callers tell us what's making them happy this week.

That might sound a little hokey, but as John always says, “it's guaranteed leave you smiling”, and even for someone as cynical as yours truly, it generally does.

It's difficult to find many things to smile about when the Twins are 9-24 overall in 2012, and 1-8 on games where I've been out at the ballpark.

But in the spirit of The John Williams Show, I'll attempt to find something in this dreadful season to be happy about... namely the bullpen.

4-28-12: Looking For Stories During A Rain Delay

So what does one do while it's raining at Target Field? Look around the Majors for another story. That's the beauty of baseball: there's always something interesting going on.

Two kids... two franchises... two wildly different sets of circumstances, neither of which would've been predicted heading into the season.

The Los Angeles Angels signed two of the biggest free agent names available this past off-season: three-time MVP Albert Pujols and starting pitcher C.J. Wilson - fresh off two consecutive appearances in the World Series with the Texas Rangers. Combined with a lineup that already featured speed and power along with a starting rotation that had two All-Star pitchers in it, and the Angels were expected to contend not only for their division, but for the American League pennant and perhaps a World Championship.

So far it hasn't worked out that way.


Jackie Robinson Day

[Ed.'s Note: Originally published for the Twins Blog at]

Have you ever been to Target Field and were asked by a youngster, “who was number 42 and why is it a different color than the rest of the Twins retired numbers?”

If so, you understand why in 2004, Commissioner Bud Selig retired Robinson's number 42 across Major League Baseball, and named April 15th “Jackie Robinson Day” making it an annual tradition.

On April 15th, 1947 Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the first African-American to appear in a Major League baseball game. He'd go on to appear in 1382 games, collect 1518 hits, score 947 runs, and drive in 734 more. He won the MVP in 1949, and was named to the All-Star team six times.

But no game in his career was more important than when he manned first base at Ebbets Field as the Brooklyn Dodgers hosted the Boston Braves back in April of '47. His final line read: 0-for-3 with a run scored, but by merely stepping on the field, he changed the game - and in a sense American society - forever.

Dodgers owner Branch Rickey had been interested in integrating the game for a while, but wanted to make sure he found the right player - in both skill and temperament - before attempting it. When he met Jackie Robinson, he knew he had his man.

Robinson dealt with slurs and epithets from fans, and even worse from opposing players. But he never retaliated, and never allowed people to think that they'd gotten to him. To have slipped up, even for a moment, wouldn't have stopped the integration of baseball, but it would've set it back by years, if not decade or more.

It's difficult for people today to fully understand the kind of pressure he was under, and that's one of many reasons it's so important to celebrate this day. The grace and class he displayed paved the way for players like Larry Doby, Dan Bankhead, Satchel Paige and the hundreds and hundreds of African-American players who followed him.

So on Sunday, the 65th anniversary of that historic day in baseball, players and coaches from both the Twins and Rangers all wore number 42. Sure it was a pain for broadcasters and statisticians, but for every youngster in the stands who asked why everyone was wearing 42, and got to hear the story of Jackie Robinson, it was one-hundred percent worth the trouble.

More Jackie Robinson info:

You can see the boxscore to Jackie's first game in the Major Leagues here's coverage of Jackie Robinson Day can be found here

The Jackie Robinson Foundation's website with more information on the inner-city programs it sponsors can be found here


Who Are Yu?

[Ed.'s Note: Blog written for the Twins Blog]

Japanese sensation Yu Darvish made only his second Major League appearance on Saturday, pitching against the Twins for the first time in his brief Rangers career.

The 25-year-old right-hander had plenty of firsts: his first regular-season road start, his first day game, and his first “no decision” after leaving the game in the 6th with the score tied at 2.

He's the second-youngest Japanese native (25 years, 237 days) to ever make his Major League debut as a starter, behind only Tomo Ohka (23 years, 123 days) on July 19, 1999. By comparison, the last Japanese pitcher to receive this much attention - Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka - was 26 years old (and 204 days) when he debuted with the Red Sox back in 2007.

But 2012 isn't the first time Darvish has made an impact in America. Back in 2009 during the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Yu went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA, appearing in 5 games for the championship-winning Japanese team, including earning the win and recording the last out in the finals against Korea.

Darvish displayed an impressive array of pitches mixing his fastball and splitter with a slider, curveball and super-slo-mo curveball that registered several times in the low 60's. Some in baseball wonder if he wouldn't be better served by shrinking his repertoire, focusing on three or four of them and making them Major League quality. But when you watch him spin a 67 mph eephus-looking pitch up there against Justin Morenau, and follow that up by blowing a 93 mph fastball by him, it's tough to say he should change up his approach this early in his Major League career.


1-13-12: Tebow Time!

Hello again everybody...

To those of you I haven't spoken with in the last couple of weeks, I hope you have had and will continue to have a very Happy New Year!

And what better way to kick off 2012 here at “Writing for the Cycle” then by tackling perhaps the most polarizing athlete to come along in years, right?!

Okay, maybe some of you would prefer that I kick off the annum nuevo with lighter fare, but I can't help but think it would be far less interesting, so I'm going to go with my original idea anyway.

Tim Tebow - and perhaps more so the reaction *to* Tim Tebow - is simply one of the most fascinating things to happen to sports in ages. You might like him, you might hate him, but hardly anyone who has even a passing interest in football is ambivalent towards him.

Good, bad or ugly, people have an opinion. Those opinions range from the sincere and thoughtful to the crazy and half-cocked, with seemingly endless shades of gray in between.

I'm bewildered, I'm befuddled, I'm bemused, I'm amazed and ultimately I'm inspired by the range of reaction to him. And that's why I felt the need to write this column.

Which I'll get to...

Right after the quote!

“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.”
- John 15:22

Yes, I know. A Bible verse hasn't appeared here before. There are reasons for that which I may or may not get into as this goes along. We'll see. This is also the spot where I generally have some pithy or interesting explanation as to why I selected this quote. That's not going to happen right this moment either. Instead, you'll have to keep reading, and I promise it will connect to...

Tebow Time!