Bob Wojnowski and Chris McCosky discuss the improving Tigers, the 9-11 start and what to expect from key players in the coming weeks. Detroit News
Kansas City, Mo. — Stand in the batter’s box against Detroit Tigers left-hander Francisco Liriano.
You know he throws a sinker between 91 and 93 mph. You also know he possesses one of the nastiest sliders in baseball. So, settle in. First you see him wind up, a kind of ducking motion when he brings his right leg up. Then he bounces, flings his glove hand as he takes a long stride toward home plate. And then he comes around violently with his throwing arm.
Every pitch comes from the same arm angle – the hard sinker and late-biting slider – no telling them apart until it’s too late.
“He’s so deceptive, as a hitter you don’t know where the ball is going to come from,” said John Hicks, who has both caught and tried to hit Liriano. “When you don’t see the ball, you are going to guess fastball. And the ball just kind of appears to you – and then it’s a wipeout slider.”
Liriano’s slider has been a gift bestowed on him from the baseball gods. It was the pitch that transformed him from a scuffling outfield prospect to a pedigreed pitcher, still going strong in his 13th season. The slider is aging as well as he has.
Opponents have hit under .200 off his slider every year but one – last season, when he battled through shoulder pain, they hit .223. Even after he had Tommy John surgery in November 2006 and lost a little hair off his fastball – the slider remained true.
“No, I’ve never had to tweak it or make any adjustments with it,” said Liriano, 34, who gets the ball Friday against the Royals. “I just try to have the same grip every time and not try to do too much. I’ve been throwing it a long time. I try not to change anything.
“Just repeat the same mechanics every time.”
He’s thrown 157 sliders in his five starts this season. He’s allowed seven hits on 47 balls put in play. The average exit velocity on those batted balls is a light 86.5 mph. He’s getting a 32-percent strikeout rate and a 26.5-percent whiff rate on the pitch.
“It’s a combination,” Hicks said. “One, he studies hitters and he knows when to throw his slider. And two, the deception. It’s just an uncomfortable at-bat. I’m a right-handed hitter, and usually against a lefty you feel comfortable.
“With him, he comes up, he ducks – I don’t even know what all he does – and it’s just a tough pitch to see.”
Hitters will tell you a slider is distinguishable from a fastball, normally, by the faster spin rate – the spin of the seams creates the illusion of a red dot.
“I remember Derek Jeter swinging at a pitch and looking in the dugout going, ‘Oh my God!’” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I was laughing because the ball just disappeared.
“It looks like a fastball coming out. A lot of times when it’s a slider you can see this red dot coming at you. With his, I don’t know if you can see that red dot. It just falls off the table.”
Hicks was asked about the red dot and just shook his head.
“He has really tight spin on it,” he said. “It makes it impossible to see.”
According to Baseball Savant, the spin rate on Liriano’s slider this season is 2,289 revolutions per minute. The Major League Average is 2,162. The high spin rate equates to a more biting break.
“He’s got a violent motion, we all know that,” said Gardenhire, who was the Twins’ manager when Liriano made his big-league debut in 2005. “He ends up with his butt toward home plate when he throws it. He’s got such a whip with his arm and his fingers are long – he can get a really good grip on the ball.”
Gardenhire recalled 2006, before Liriano injured his elbow.
“Johan Santana was our No. 1 but honestly, there were times when Liriano was better than him,” he said.
Five years before that, Liriano was an outfielder.
“When I signed in 2001, I didn’t know how to throw anything,” he said. “The change-up was the first pitch I learned to throw. When I was traded to Minnesota, I was throwing a curve ball, but it was too slow.
“A pitching coach there told me, ‘Try to throw it harder.’ That’s how I came up with the slider.”
And it has remained a valuable and reliable friend ever since.
“He’s got dominating stuff, he really does,” Gardenhire said. “Maybe it’s because of where his arm angle comes from. He has so much deception because of everything he throws at them – his body and the whole package.
“But his slider is nasty. Always has been. It’s a gift.”