SOUTH HILLS – That was about as perfect of an Opening Day as the Pirates could have hoped for.
The skies cleared. The temperature rose. Francisco Liriano and bullpen were in 2013 form and the Local Boy Done Good ended it with his first career walk-off. Good luck following up that one, Charlie Morton. As we’ll have to do with everything this April, really through May, we’ll have to attach the small sample disclaimer to every observation or statement that is made here. But we still need to write, talk, and generally kill time so here goes …
One small-sample size thing that flew under the radar on Opening Day was Liriano’s pitch useage.
Look, Liriano was tremendous even with shaky fastball command. He threw only 10 of 24 first-pitch strikes but still tossed six shutout innings, striking out 10, thanks to his wipeout secondary offerings. His slider and changeup looked to be in bat-missing, 2013 form as nine of the time strikeouts came via his slider and changeup and eight were swinging strikeouts.
Anthony Rizzo, bless his heart, faced Liriano three times and struck out swinging three times, each occasion whiffing on a slider.
In the fourth inning, Mike Olt swung and missed and three straight diving changeups.
It is off-speed pitches that generate the most strikeouts, the most swings-and-misses, but it is off-speed pitches some believe (most notably the slider) place more stress on pitchers’ elbows and shoulders. Some refute the idea that one pitch is more dangerous than another but until we have real data on pitching injuries much is unknown.
This spring Liriano said a focus of his in 2014 was to throw more fastballs and more two-seam fastballs in an effort to work deeper into games. In essence, Liriano was talking about trying to miss fewer bats, throw fewer pitches per inning, and create more weak contact.
Even if sliders are not more dangerous than any other pitch, high strikeouts pitchers often throw more pitches per inning because they are missing more bats.
On Monday Liriano threw 104 pitches and only 45 were fastballs. It’s only one start but that’s 43 percent fastball useage which is line with were he was last season.
Liriano threw a career-low percentage of fastballs than in 2013 (41 percent), and he hadn’t thrown more sliders (36 percent) since his rookie year in 2006 – when he elbow blew up.
I wonder if Liriano has become addicted to his off-speed stuff. I can understand why he would be. His slider helped him to the best season all time against left-handed hitters (.321 OPS). Yes, even better than Randy Johnson‘s best work.
In tight spots Liriano seems to trust his slider even more. Liriano threw his slider 44 times compared to 23 fastballs against the Reds in the wild card game. He gets tons of swings and misses his off-speed stuff. He had a bounce-back season by shelving his fastball more than every before.
But if sliders carry more risk than fastballs perhaps Liriano’s left shoulder or left elbow are in trouble. Now if a breakdown occurs in 2015 or beyond that likely won’t be a concern of the Pirates as Liriano will likely be pitching elsewhere if he continues to pitch as he did on Monday. He’s a free agent after the season and could be headed for a massive payday.
Still, regardless of what happens down the road, the Pirates need Liriano’s left arm to remain in tact in 2014. I’m not sure if his pitch usage should be a major red flag but I do think it’s worth noting.
OTHER OPENING DAY OBSERVATIONS:
*Jason Grilli’s fastball touched 95 and sat at 93-94. That is welcomed news for the bullpen. It was sitting 91 mph on Friday in Philly.
*I told you Bryan Morris looked good this spring. He sat 95-96 mph with movement and pounded the strikezone.
*Travis Snider made some loud contact and drew a walk. I continue to like his process. He also hit in the No. 2 hole which speaks to some confidence from the manager’s office.
*On a warmer day, Starling Marte might have launched an opposite-field shot. The power is coming … if he can lift the ball more often.
*Pedro Alvarez continues to become a better defender. No reason to move him off third. He made 100 more plays at third in 2013 than he did in 2013. Showed good range and hands on Monday.