On Saturday, Baseball America’s #50 prospect in baseball, Matthew Liberatore, made his MLB debut against the 16-22 Pittsburgh Pirates. Due to Tuesday’s doubleheader, the Cardinals needed either a bullpen start or a spot start. And because the bullpen was used heavily both during the doubleheader and in the days following, it became clear a spot start was needed. And so came the arrival of the Cardinals third-most anticipated MLB debut, a day after the most anticipated debut. (Jordan Walker is the second if you were wondering, but we’ll be anticipating that one for a while longer)
I happened to miss most of Saturday’s game, including the entirety of Liberatore’s appearance, but it’s Sunday, I’m not paying for Peacock, and I want to watch baseball, so let’s take a closer look at Liberatore’s performance. The raw stats might not tell the whole story. For example, though it was close to a home run, he really did not deserve a home run against in Saturday’s game. He was also left in at least a batter too long, which affected his advanced stats.
A solid enough beginning. He struggles with his fastball in this first plate appearance. His first one goes too high. We get an extremely annoying behind the catcher camera angle - look directors of baseball broadcasts: keep it simple guys. Dead center, behind the pitcher, no variations, make sure that’s the shot when the pitch is being thrown. Get fancy between pitches, not during them. Anyway, it’s a changeup on the outside corner - probably meant to be lower, but it’s also a get me over pitch. It does its job effectively. He then throws a nice curveball that Hayes chases. Again, throws the fastball too high. Then another good curve that causes Hayes to pound it into the ground.
I’m combining the next two plate appearances. The first pitch popout by Bryan Reynolds is what Liberatore tries to do all game. Throw a high fastball right above the strike zone. He frequently misses too high or too low, but here, it’s exactly where he wants it. Against Michael Chavis, he looks to be aiming towards the outside corner but misses in. Chavis is taking anyway. For the second pitch, another fastball where he wants it. And then that pesky camera angle again. But it’s clearly a curve, and Chavis can’t handle it. Really good first inning.
This would have gone better if he didn’t fall behind 2-0. He misses badly on his first two pitches. He then throws a pretty good pitch actually. It’s a fastball that starts on the outside corner and ends up outside. Just in this situation, Gamel probably isn’t swinging. Were it a more aggressive hitter and not 2-0, it might produce a swing. He then throws a fastball in the zone and then a basically identical pitch to the 2-0 pitch - Gamel’s not very tempted, having seen the same pitch three pitches in a row and recognizing it’s not staying in the strike zone. If Liberatore puts himself in good counts, these pitches would probably produce swings.
I’m combining the next two doubles in that video. Tough luck on the Diego Castillo plate appearance. Again, he actually throws two good pitches, maybe not necessarily good pitches when you’re searching for the first strike in a plate appearance, but independent of context, definitely good pitches. The change seems to fool Castillo - he was so caught off guard, I don’t think he swings if it’s in the strike zone. And then a fastball that just barely misses. And then well, he needs to throw a strike and it ends up in the middle of the plate. Even still, a good left fielder catches that. An average left fielder catches that. I think Juan Yepez catches that. How did Corey Dickerson ever win a Gold Glove?
The Yoshi Tsutsugo plate appearances was not exactly tough luck on the other hand. He throws a get me over curveball that Tsutsugo was very ready for - too ready as he was ahead of it. He then throws a fastball that carries too far outside - not sure why the Film Room doesn’t have a clip for that. Wild pitch, I think Yadi probably should have caught it, but it didn’t end up affecting much. He then throws a good fastball inside. On 2-2, he throws a not very good slider that makes it full. He tries to duplicate the fastball inside, but misses pretty badly down the middle. The next three plate appearances are all flyouts, so I’ll combine them.
Liberatore tried throwing a backdoor curve, but missed low. He then missed badly again by throwing a fastball right down the middle - but he didn’t pay for this one. Against Michael Perez, he throws a fastball that just misses, a curve that doesn’t curve, and a fastball that misses by a lot. On 3-0, he throws a pitch right down the middle. Then on 3-1, it looks like Yadi is calling for a fastball lower in the strike zone, but he throws it high. But he could just be fooling the runner on 2nd. It’s a pretty similar pitch to what he seems to be trying to do all game. Perez was just on it. Then against Jack Suwinski, he throws a perfect curve - though based on where Yadi was set up, absolutely not where he was intending. Then a change that goes right down the middle - but Suwinski was not looking for a change. Good pitch selection, not location.
It’s difficult to quibble on the lineout, even though it’s a lineout. Most hitters are not swinging at that on first pitch and even if they are, usually it won’t result in a lineout. Against Reynolds, he missed way inside and then way outside. He then threw a decent changeup actually - probably more middle middle than intended, but certainly on the very bottom of the strike zone. And it produced a groundball. But it went down the third base line and became a double instead. It probably didn’t help that he threw back-to-back changes.
The problem at this point - and this is a completely normal and common problem for a young pitcher - is he’s just throwing too many uncompetitive pitches. He throws a fantastic curve that Chavis unsuccessfully tries to time. Then he missed badly inside. Then great location on a fastball just a little too high. Then missed badly high. Then a great changeup that Chavis hits weakly for a groundout.
You can see the power of his curve against lefties in this plate appearance. The first one is hittable, but Ben Gamel has proven to be a hitter who is absolutely not swinging at that on the first pitch. He then throws a great curve in a great location. Then he barely misses on two fastballs outside. Then throws a curve that gets away for him to make it a full count. And then location-wise, not the greatest curve - it is on the outside corner at least - but Gamel can’t make contact. We know from Wainwright that if you have a great curve, you don’t always need perfect location.
He starts off Castillo with a backdoor curve - generous call for strike one. Then he throws a changeup - which for most part seems like an effective pitch in this game to me. I’m guessing Liberatore was aiming for better location on the fastball that Castillo fouls off on 0-2, but the contrast with the changeup still gets a foul. He then throws a curve that fools Castillo that he somehow makes contact on. He probably doesn’t intend to throw the next fastball THAT high but he was aiming for high, because on the very next pitch he does throw it were he wants and Castillo swings at it. And fouls it off. Then he throws a curve - it’s kind of a hanger, but it’s also way outside and Castillo can’t really do much else but ground out.
For some reason, Tsutsugo just kills the Cardinals and nobody else. I don’t think Liberatore does anything wrong here. He throws an 0-2 curve on the first pitch - Tsutsugo swung at a first pitch curve in his first plate appearance. He then throws a fastball just a tad above the strike zone, but gets a generous strike call. And then a slider in perfect location that isn’t hit very hard - 68.9 mph exit velocity - but he hits it where the defense ain’t.
Liberatore starts Rodolfo Castro with two changeups that miss the strike zone. Not sure if he intended them to be as high as they are. Then on 2-0, a pretty good fastball that Castro is behind on. Then a great fastball low - that again is a bit of a generous strike call. A seemingly good curve that Castro recognizes to put the count full. A fastball that doesn’t go high enough that Castro fouls. Another fastball high and outside that Castro fouls. Then I think they were trying to do that again, but Liberatore kind of throws it towards the middle. But Castro hits it straight into the ground. Double play.
No commentary. This is a beautiful sequence. This is the kind of sequence to dream on for his future.
Another good sequence. You can see how Liberatore will be a real problem for lefties. The wind picked up mightily during this plate appearance, so you might get a headache trying to watch that clip.
Liberatore throws a backdoor curve that just catches the strike zone. And you can’t see it here - Pittsburgh freaking loves behind the catcher camera angles I guess - but he throws a slider inside. It’s not terrible location, but obviously lefties throwing sliders inside to right-handed batters is not much of a thing for a reason. I believe it was intended to be inside and not in the strike zone, but it did catch the strike zone.
After missing outside on a fastball, he throws two straight breaking balls that just barely catch the plate. He tries to get Reynolds to chase a curve and then throws a fastball much too high - a case of trying to throw it high but not THAT high I assume. Then he throws a hanging curve that Reynolds is entirely ready for. And then the Cardinals outfield plays a double into an inside the park homer. I have no idea where Tommy Edman was, but he’s also not a centerfielder. But yeah I think he saw that the ball was hit to left field, thought “no way am I going to be needed for this play” and didn’t start running towards the ball until the ball started going towards centerfield. Dickerson played it pretty poorly too make no mistake, but I think this is more Edman’s fault, who should be backing up Dickerson for this exact reason.
A smart manager takes Liberatore out after that homer. 22-year-old, probably completely rattled by the homer, we’re already on the third-time-through-the-order. Michael Chavis has a career .230 ISO against lefties. Well, the result was predictable. Missed badly on his first two pitches, threw it right down the middle for his next pitch. And I realize the next guy was a lefty and you want to get him a win for his first career start, but... the upcoming walk was very, very predictable.
First off, whoever the Pittsburgh announcers are - can you see? That 3-1 pitch was clearly in the strike zone! Anyway, Gamel was exactly the wrong hitter for Liberatore to face, because he is very willing to just stand there and make him throw three strikes before swinging. Liberatore was not capable of it and his day was done.
Anyway, by trying to get Liberatore his first career win, Oli actually made Liberatore’s stats worse. Based entirely on this game, you can see the inklings of what he could become. His curve looks as advertised and I actually think he used his changeup well for the most part. Of his three strikeouts, two were from his curve and one from his slider. His fastball won’t blow hitters away so he needs to locate it, which he didn’t do as much as he needs to in his first start. That’s why he struggled.
But here’s the thing. I play in a deep fantasy league where you roster prospects. And through experience I learned: never roster pitching prospects. It’s not worth it. By the time they’re good, you’ve already given up on them because they got too expensive. I don’t know it’s a recent thing, but there is a massive learning curve for starting pitching prospects. So even if he struggles, that is extremely, extremely normal. In my opinion, there is nothing left for him to prove in AAA. I think a necessary step in his development is to struggle at the MLB level - it’s inevitable.
Which is not to say he is guaranteed to struggle, just that it’s what usually happens to young pitchers. They need to learn how to pitch to MLBers, learn how to adjust. And AAA hitters just aren’t on the same level. I actually think the ideal scenario - aside from him pitching well of course - is that he struggles for a few starts, and then he can return to the minors and then work on what he needs to work on. But there is a probable adjustment period where he needs to face MLB hitters.