Liriano ready to deliver for Blue Jays with injury scare behind him

MLB insider Arden Zwelling joins Hazel Mae to discuss Francisco Liriano's minor adjustments with Jays pitching staff that turned his 2016 season around and has him feeling even better in 2017

•Liriano doesn’t even think about last season’s line-drive scare
•Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker helped correct Liriano’s mechanics following trade
•Martin and Liriano mixed in a blend of old tricks and new approaches down the stretch of 2016

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Getting hit in the head with a 102-mph comebacker is a hell of a thing. It really, really hurts, for starters. You probably assumed that. But what’s worse is the uncertainty that follows. What non-evident damage was done? What more will occur if you stay in the game? What happens when you get on the exercise bike to cool down? After a traumatic event like that, you can feel perfectly fine when you almost certainly aren’t. A brain injury can be like an earthquake below sea level—it takes some time for the waves to decimate the shore.

That’s what happened to Francisco Liriano after Carlos Gomez got him with a liner in last October’s ALDS. The ball caught Liriano directly behind his right ear. It hit him so hard it bounced all the way into right-centre. Completely unfazed, Liriano watched the ball fly into the outfield, ran over to back up third base, and then walked straight to the mound ready to resume pitching.

That was absolutely not an option. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons immediately lifted Liriano from the game, and just 15 minutes later the headaches and nausea arrived. Sitting at his locker staring directly ahead, the stalls across the room started circling. The dizziness got worse and worse, to a point that Liriano wasn’t sure he could stand up. His blood pressure was starting to spike as well, which was the moment Blue Jays trainers felt they’d better call an ambulance. Still wearing his uniform, Liriano was rolling out of the clubhouse strapped to a gurney.

“It was a tough moment for me,” Liriano said Tuesday, standing in the Blue Jays’ Dunedin clubhouse. “I was scared. Going to the hospital, you never know. It’s your head. Anything can happen. But thankfully everything went well.”

Liriano was diagnosed with a concussion, and his symptoms bled into the ensuing few days. But a week later he felt well enough to take the mound again and was cleared to play in the ALCS, although the Blue Jays didn’t call on him. He says the ball didn’t even leave a welt (“You’ve got a hard head,” a doctor at the hospital told him), something he joked about over dinner with Gomez a couple nights later, a tab the Rangers outfielder insisted on picking up.

Back on the mound this spring for the first time since the incident, Liriano says it feels like it never happened.

“I don’t even think about it anymore because I don’t feel anything,” Liriano says. “I feel totally normal. I feel better this year than I did last.”

If you’re a Blue Jays fan, that’s good news to hear — both from a health perspective and a performance one. Liriano, who will serve as the defacto fifth starter in Toronto’s egalitarian rotation, had an alarming start to his 2016 season with Pittsburgh, pitching to a 5.46 ERA over 21 starts. That’s one of the reasons why — assuming his $13.6 million 2017 salary was another — the Blue Jays were able to acquire Liriano and two prospects from the Pirates for only little-used triple-A starter Drew Hutchison minutes before the trade deadline.

In hindsight, the trade looks like an utter steal for the Blue Jays. Liriano pivoted his season 180 degrees in Toronto, cutting his ERA nearly in half and putting up a series of strong starts as his new team rolled into the playoffs.

“I’ve only seen him good,” says Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “I didn’t see any command issues at all when we picked him up.

“He’s really the most experienced, established starter on our staff. When you look at his big-league career, he’s had some very, very good years.”

He certainly has. Liriano put up a 3.26 ERA over 86 starts from 2013-15. But he was hindered almost entirely by two things in 2016: throwing less strikes and giving up more home runs. His HR/FB rate soared from 11.7 per cent over the two years prior to 18.8 per cent in 2016. Meanwhile, his BB/9 ballooned to 5.5 during his first four months with the Pirates, well above his career rate of 3.9.

Part of the problem, Liriano and the Blue Jays believe, was inconsistency in his mechanics. After pitching well for Pittsburgh on opening day, he developed a bad habit of getting too far into his delivery before his arm came over the top, which opened up his shoulder and led him to release the ball before he normally does. He says it felt like his arm couldn’t catch up to the rest of his body.

Then, in an effort to correct that, Liriano began experiencing the opposite problem, rushing his delivery and moving his upper body forward ahead of his legs. That created a new host of issues as Liriano began to overthrow and completely lost the feel for his breaking ball.

“It was a lot of stuff,” Liriano says with a sigh. “I was just trying to do too much. I was trying too hard to get better, and I actually ended up getting worse. You know, sometimes they say less is more. So now I just try to think about it like that.”

Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker worked closely with Liriano to correct the issues with his mechanics, getting him back to a more consistent, fluid delivery with his upper and lower halves working in concert. Once he was able to locate his fastball back in the zone, Liriano began regaining the feel for his breaking ball as well.

“It started with the fastball, because when you can’t locate your fastball, it’s very tough,” Liriano says. “I just couldn’t throw strikes. Location was hurting me a lot. My breaking ball wasn’t as sharp as I wanted it to be. But we worked on it, and I got better with time. I finished the year the way I wanted to. And now everything works great. Everything’s working a lot better than last year.”

That’s encouraging, because when Liriano has everything working his stuff is among the best in baseball. And the numbers support the eye test. Since 2013, he’s been the fourth-best pitcher in the majors at getting batters to whiff, putting up a 13.2 per cent swinging strike rate. The quality of the three pitchers above him — Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard — tells you just how devastating he’s been.

His overwhelming movement also explains why Liriano has the second-highest soft contact rate in baseball over that four-year span at 22.3 per cent. And all those numbers include his significant struggles over the first half of 2016. When he’s on, Liriano’s incredibly difficult to square up.

“His stuff’s as good as anyone’s,” Gibbons says. “It’s not an easy at-bat for a hitter, because that ball is going everywhere. It’s even a tough night if you’re the catcher back there.”

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The catcher back there for the majority of Liriano’s starts this season will be Russell Martin. That duo worked together when they both played in Pittsburgh years ago, and Liriano credits Martin’s game-calling — not to mention his elite pitching framing — for his late-season turnaround.

Martin’s renowned for vacuuming pitches just off the plate into the strike zone, something that’s especially crucial for a pitcher like Liriano, who lives on the edges. But the veteran Blue Jays catcher also helped rework Liriano’s sequencing, utilizing sinkers, sliders and change-ups in different counts and moving away from doubling up on pitches, especially fastballs.

And the duo mixed in some new tricks as well, including a curveball Liriano had been tinkering with since spring training. Liriano had rarely used it outside of bullpen sessions, but Martin began to mix it in as a surprise pitch now and then when Liriano was deep in a count with a pesky hitter.

“His stuff’s as good as anyone’s. It’s not an easy at-bat for a hitter, because that ball is going everywhere. It’s even a tough night if you’re the catcher back there.”

The most effective use of the curveball came in late September during a game against Baltimore, when Liriano was facing Chris Davis. There were two out, the bases were loaded, the Blue Jays held a 2-0 lead, and Liriano was pitching to the Orioles slugger for the third time on the night. Right in the heart of the Blue Jays playoff push, it was an extremely crucial situation.

Five pitches into the at-bat, the count was 2-2, and Davis had been afforded plenty of opportunities to see Liriano’s stuff. It was also 82 pitches into Liriano’s outing and his effectiveness was diminishing. The advantage fell in favour of the hitter. So, Liriano flipped up a curveball.

Davis’ back knee buckled and he bent back at the hips away from the plate as the ball came in at 79mph and fell perfectly into the zone for strike three. Davis dropped his bat, threw his head back, and slumped his shoulders in disbelief.

“He’d seen everything hard, hard, hard — so, we tried to surprise him,” Liriano says. “I face these guys so much — they know what you’ve got. It helps to have something like that in your back pocket. Guys have all the video these days and there’s just too many power hitters in this division. You’ve got to find new ways to get them out. It’s never too late to learn something new.”

It’s not — even when you’re 33 and entering your 12th big league season. And you can be sure the Blue Jays won’t complain if Liriano brings back some of his old self as well.