How Liriano became a staff ace again

No, he’s not quite as good as he was in 2006, but Francisco Liriano has at least shown he’s better than he was in 2008 and 2009. Now three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Liriano has increased his fastball velocity by about three mph since he first returned from surgery in 2008 and by about two mph over his velocity in 2009.

While you can attribute some of that to Liriano’s returning arm strength, he’s also adjusted his mechanics to maximize his output.

So what’s changed since last year? I’ll give you two angles of Liriano, comparing the 2009 and 2010 versions. The first angle is from the center field camera. On the left is the 2009 Liriano throwing a 90 mph fastball, while on the right is Liriano in 2010 throwing a 94 mph fastball:

*Credit to MLB Advanced Media

The main thing I want you to focus on here is what the torso does as the hands break: It bends at the waist. It’s called bend as you break and it’s something I’ve spoken about before. Many high velocity throwers, at the time they break their hands (or just after), bend over at the waist. Just before their front foot lands, the torso springs back up and a whole bunch of torque/separation is created between the torso and the hips.

The next angle of Liriano comes from just right of center. You can’t pick up as much difference in how deep the torso bends as you can from the center field angle. However, there are some other differences to note. On the left, Liriano is clocked at 88 mph in a game from the 2009 season, while on the right is Liriano in 2010, throwing a 95 mph fastball:

*Credit to MLB Advanced Media

First, note how at the start of the clip, the 2010 Liriano is not as far along in his delivery. Since the release points are synchronized, we can conclude that Liriano’s body in 2010 is moving at a faster pace throughout his windup. Second, it appears that at the top of his knee lift, the 2010 version has less of a pause. This means there is more momentum being created as he works his way through his windup. Any pause in one’s delivery can bleed energy one needs to produce a high velocity pitch.

What’s interesting is that the 2009 version appears to break his hands just a tad later than the 2010 version. A later hand break is most often associated with better velocity. But in this case, since Liriano’s body is further ahead in 2010, the hands have to break sooner to keep up.

The last thing to notice is the finish of each pitch. Check out the intent of the 2010 version of Liriano; check out the violence. I intentionally chose fastballs with a big difference in velocity to illustrate the importance of intent on velocity. On the 95 mph pitch, the head gets jerked a little more to the side, the torso is thrust forward a little more violently, the back leg wildly swings around, and the front foot has to replant itself.

While the extra velocity is certainly nice, perhaps more important for the Twins is the fact Liriano has now been healthy for three straight seasons and his future looks as bright as ever.

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Brad Johnson
12 years ago

If you watch the way his hips rotate in both sets, you can visibly see that he’s getting greater explosive power, even in slow motion. It’s tough to determine the proximate cause of that better explosiveness. My best guess would be that he’s lengthened his stride a little. It’s a quick and easy way to eek more velocity out of bad mechanics youngsters, but I’m not sure how it translates to pros. Could just be a new workout regiment that either built explosiveness or improved his flexibility (or both).

12 years ago

The motion is effectively identical mechanically to his 2009 version, he just does it faster.  Its unsurprising really, pitchers tend to lose the ability to command and control with their previous ferocity when they come back from a long layoff because their conditioning deteriorates, so they have no choice but to slow down.  Ive also never heard that breaking the hands late increases velocity, all ive seen it do is cause timing problems and shorten careers.

Brad Johnson
12 years ago

If you pay attention to all the sayings, you’ll find that the literal definition is rarely a good thing. In the case of breaking the hands late, it’s a trick to force the body into moving the hands faster. In some cases you can tell a pitcher that and a good thing will happen, because the pitcher can only do what “feels” like what you told him.

Similarly, bending your back is poor literal advice. Good power pitchers may tend to bend their backs, but pitchers who bend their backs aren’t usually good power pitchers. Like with all these sayings its a correlation/causation issue. You say them with the hope that when a player tries it out a light switches on and something works. A good mechanical coach will then help the player forget the bad phrase and instead remember the feeling of the beneficial result.

Alex Eisenberg
12 years ago

Brad, very well said on your first point.  I left this out because I didn’t have the angle to verify it, but the way he steps into foot plant changed a bit from 2009 to 2010.  However, if I were to compare his 2008 mechanics to what he does in 2009 and 2010, you’d see he incorporated a step over move, which he made more efficient in 2010.  The step over move is essentially an increase in stride length.

And your second point about breaking the hands later is on point as well.  The reason you’d break the hands late is to eliminate any pauses or hitches in your arm action.  Essentially, you’d be speeding up the arm. 

And Joe, it’s ridiculous to suggest that breaking your hands late “causes timing problems and shorten careers”.  There is zero evidence of this.  Let me first state that a pitcher can generate velocity using both an early and a late hand break.  Check out Justin Verlander or Roy Oswalt as examples of pitchers using a late hand break and see Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia as examples of pitchers using an early one. 

However, there is a higher correlation between high level pitchers—pitchers that generate high velocity—and a late hand break.  But in reality, what matters most is what the pitcher is most comfortable with and what method is most in-sync with the rest of his delivery.  Both methods work if timed correctly.  Everything you do in your delivery has an impact on timing.  Everything has to be timed right for one’s delivery to work.  If a pitcher breaks his hands late and has poor timing, who are you to say that it’s the hand break that caused the timing problem and not something else, like maybe a pitcher’s front foot landing too soon?