By Alex Eisenberg
April 14, 2008
Over a year has past since Francisco Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery and the much awaited return of Liriano came and went as the phenom threw his first pitches since 2006 on Sunday.
Carlos Gomez, a former pro baseball player, Hardball Times and Baseball Think Factory writer, and now a pro scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks broke down Liriano's pitching mechanics last year shortly after Liriano's injury and had this to say:
"Leave the kid alone. Note to the Twins: Forget this ever happened. Change nothing. Don’t slow him down. Don’t have his arm action get longer. This is a fluke injury. His arm is getting used to the new stresses he is putting on it. If anything, work on making the ligaments stronger. Train the elbow to handle those new loads and more"
Of course, opinions varied. Chris O'Leary of The Pitching Mechanic said this:
"As it turns out, Liriano's mechanics resemble those of Mark Prior. This makes it logical that Liriano would have similar problems."
Before getting into my opinion, let's do the before-and-after. First up is the animation Gomez used for his analysis:
Now, the post-injury Liriano (if the timings of the animations get thrown off, just refresh the browser):
First thing we should take note of is the tempo, where the pre-injury Liriano is faster. We can see this because the clip is synchronized to release and the pre-injury Liriano has a higher leg kick and therefore a longer distance to travel.
However, the key thing here is the arm action. Liriano showed off an earlier hand break on Sunday, which isn't a good thing. The biggest arm action difference is the scap load. In Gomez's words:
"Quick, aggressive, short. Yes, yes, and yes....Frame 20—Look at that position. You will see a still shot of this position later. WOW!! Look at the level of horizontal loading of the arm. In other words, he reaches back well. Not towards 2nd base, but towards 3rd base. Also note the elbow above the arm. Love it."
What about now?
The differences look pretty obvious. Gone is the pre-injury horizontal loading, where he would load his arm toward third base (not second) and would bring his elbow above shoulder's height.
Gomez also said this:
"He doesn’t have the separation between upper and lower body as a lot of power guys. His hips lead, but it seems like he rotates upper and lower body as a unit more than a lot of power pitchers."
This aspect does remain the same. Without that separation, Liriano might possibly have needed his pre-injury arm action to produce the kind of quality stuff he threw. And that is the question: was his pre-injury arm action the key factor in the quality stuff he threw?
A couple still shots to illustrate the differences below. Both stills are immediately before the forearm rises above the elbow and gets ready to assume a throwing position.
The image on the left (5 frames before release) is one of the stills Gomez used in his analysis. The image on the right (6 frames before release) is Liriano on Sunday:
The major differences are boiled down to two still images. An aggressive fury of power and momentum on the left and a safer, controlled action on the right.
My opinion? I prefer guys with aggressive mechanics but to do everything possible to lower the risk of injury without hurting the quality of the pitcher's stuff. You have a risk/reward scenario here.
If I had a choice of:
A.) taking the pre-injury Liriano with the pre-injury mechanics or
B.) taking Liriano with "safer" mechanics but producing only #3 starter stuff
I would take choice A. Any starter that can give you quality innings is valuable, but true #1 starters, true aces are of an extremely rare breed. So I take my chances. The question I have is if his mechanics can be altered to where the quality of his stuff rises close to where it was before, but also lessens the risk of injury.
Enough About Mechanics, What About Results?!?!
His fastball, normally 93 - 95, sat at around 90 while his slider lacked that hard bite we're used to seeing. Both pitches also lacked oomph.
As expected, Liriano was rusty. He didn't command his pitches all that well. However, it isn't his control I would worry about. We need to see if his stuff can return to the quality it once was or at least get close to it.
One start is hardly enough to make judgements on, so my advice would be to sit back, see how he develops, and make changes only when (or if) it becomes obvious his stuff isn't coming back. When that moment is only his coaches can decide.
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