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Saturday SOC: Is One Good Start a Sign of Significant Progress For Liberatore?

A stream-of-consciousness look at Liberatore’s pitch mix and how the Cardinals can’t seem to get it right.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

My Saturday stream-of-consciousness series is back. And this time we’re looking at Matthew Liberatore, who was really good on Thursday! He went eight innings allowing just 2 hits. He walked none – a big stat for him. He struck out 7.

It was a big game for him, going into Tampa to face the team who drafted him and traded him away. He shined.

Cardinals’ fans, in a season of negatives, took to the internet looking for positives. Is this a sign of things to come for the beleaguered starter? Has Liberatore now secured a spot in the rotation next year?

One start is one start.

In his previous outing, seven days before, Liberatore allowed 5 runs in 5 and 2/3s innings. He only struck out one batter. He walked two and allowed 6 hits, 2 of which left the park.

In July and August, he had struck out just two batters across three starts. One of those outings lasted just 1/3rd of an inning.

This season, Liberatore ranks in the bottom 20th percentile of pitchers in 7 fairly critical categories, including avg. exit velocity, expected batting average, K%, chase rate, xSLG, Whiff%, fastball spin, and expected ERA/xwOBA.

If I wanted to pile on, I would tell you that he’s in the 21st percentile in hard hit%.

But he can spin a curveball. And his overall velocity isn’t bad. He’s still just 23 years old.

I really wanted to list more positives for him just to balance things out, but that’s all I’ve got.

Except his start on Thursday was really good!

It’s a depressing baseball season, so if you want to read a bunch into that one start, buddy, you go right ahead! I’m not being facetious. We need positives to look forward to. We need something to watch.

If you saw the commentary about Jack Flaherty’s “turn up the volume” statement, it’s also clear that Cardinals fans desperately need something to talk about.

(Side rant: Speaking of which, why are fans upset that Jack Flaherty has said or implied several times that the Cardinals were bad this season? I mean… they are bad! Clearly. If Flaherty said, “Yeah, the Cardinals are a really good team. They’re gonna crush it the rest of the way” we would all laugh at him. The Cardinals are bad. Fans haven’t had anything to cheer about. Busch has been pretty depressed this season. That’s reality folks. I know it’s not the norm for St. Louis but it is this season. Accept it and don’t go off on a former player for just saying things that are true in a not very insulting way. /End of rant.)

So, as we watch Liberatore audition for the rotation in ’23 and talk about the strides he either is or is not making, I want to add some context to the conversation and your viewing pleasure.

I’ve said several times on the podcast that the Cardinals weren’t using Liberatore the right way. I’ve briefly tried to explain that and Blake Newberry and Adam Akbani have jumped in on it too.

I’ll borrow this Tweet from Adam yesterday to show you what we’re talking about:

Matthew Liberatore has a terrible fastball. It grades out as a 40 pitch on Fangraphs and that might be a bit optimistic. Take a look at the stats from that pitch:

Liberatore’s 4-seam fastball averages 94 mph. That’s slightly better than average but the velocity doesn’t seem to matter. It has produced an actual Statcast slash line (BA/wOBA/SLG) of .341/.393/.541. There’s no bad luck in that, in case you’re wondering. He’s actually had some good luck on the pitch! His expected Statcast slash line (xBA/xwOBA/xSLG) is .336/.415/.601.

.601 slugging percentage! Yikes.

That’s so high that I had to do some actual research – a no-no for a Saturday SOC!

Can you name the last Cardinal who had a slugging percentage over .601?

Ok, that was too easy. These little quizzes are no fun when one of the greatest players who ever played just recently retired. Albert Pujols is the answer to everything. But other than the Machine and Big Mac – also too easy – who would be next on the list?

Jim Edmonds did it twice. Scott Rolen barely missed the cut at .598.

Speaking of too easy, the first person who can guess the all-time single-season slugging leader for the Cardinals WITHOUT LOOKING IT UP and post their answer in the comments will win 10 VEB bucks! Straight from me to your digital VEB wallet!

(Before anyone complains, yes, you just get 10 VEB bucks for this one. I’m not being stingy. It’s just not a very hard question. There are only really five choices and I’ve probably already eliminated one of them if you read between the lines above. If you want serious VEB bucks you’re gonna have to work for them.)

Back to Liberatore. Yes, he turns pretty much every batter he faces into prime Jim Edmonds or peak Scott Rolen every time he throws a fastball.

So… maybe… hear me out on this one… maybe… he shouldn’t throw his fastball very often!

What a novel concept.

Expect, he does.

He throws his 4-seam fastball 39% of the time. He throws his sinker – pretty much equally bad by Statcast as his 4-seamer – another 19.1% of the time. Add it up and that’s like turning opposing batters into a high-level MVP candidate with 58.1% of your pitches thrown.

Pretty much every problem that Matthew Liberatore has had can be chalked up to his inability to generate outs with his fastball. If you’ve ever wondered why Liberatore can’t get deeper into games, can’t get out of innings when things fall apart, or why things fall apart for him so frequently, it’s all there in his fastballs, the stats against them and the rate that he throws them.

His fastball keeps him from getting K’s – his whiff% on his 4-seamer is just 16.3% and just 8.8% on his sinker. Every home run he’s allowed this season has come off a fastball.

If you want to liven up your Saturday, go to Baseball Savant and look at Liberatore’s fastball heat chart. That thing should come with a “Disturbing or Graphic Content: Viewer Discretion Advised” label.

If you look at qualified starters on Fangraphs and sort them by fastball percentage (FB%) – a stat that combines all fastball types into one classification – Liberatore’s 58.1% rate would rank 9th in baseball.

That’s higher than Lance Lynn and Marcus Stroman, starters known for their high fastball rates. It always made sense for someone like Lynn to throw his fastball all the time. He got outs with it. Batters struggled to center it.

The opposite is true for Liberatore.

So why does he throw it so frequently?

I have absolutely no idea. It’s mind-boggling. Bamboozling. Frustrating. Idiotic. Mind-numbing.

Especially when you consider that Liberatore’s other pitches are pretty good! We all know about his big curve ball. It has one of the best spin rates in the game. 91st percentile. He has a Statcast slash line of .241/.349/.448 on the pitch. Not great. But his expected stats are quite a bit better: .213/.333/.355. That should be one of the better curveballs in the league.

Just to complete the comparison, Liberatore’s curveball turns batters into Dylan Carlson batting from the left side. (Sorry for just throwing shade at you like that, DC!)

Liberatore only throws his curveball 23.8% of the time.

The Cardinals should know better, shouldn’t they? After all, they’ve had a pitcher with an elite curveball and an underwhelming fastball in their rotation for a decade and a half. From ’19 through ’22, Adam Wainwright threw his curve over 30% of the time.

If featuring a dominant curve over a mediocre fastball helped Adam Wainwright become one of the best pitchers of his era and a near Hall of Famer, maybe the same approach could help Liberatore not be the worst pitcher of his generation. Just sayin…

He doesn’t even have to rely exclusively on his curve. Liberatore’s slider is improving. It’s not as effective as his curve, but it’s probably an average or above pitch right now. He generates high spin. 2623 rpm on the season, which is probably in the top 20% of pitchers who throw a slider. Maybe higher. It has above average vertical break.

It’s a pitch that prospect-watcher and friend-of-the-site Kyle Reis has talked about for a couple of years and the other writers and I have keyed in on, too. He’s earned a whiff% of 30.8% of sliders this season. That rate is just below his curveball but he still only throws sliders 10% of the time.

Handedness probably has something to do with it. Liberatore only throws his slider 8% of the time against righties, but it still has a 27% whiff rate against them and a pretty good wOBA.

Why not throw it more frequently? A good pitch is a good pitch! Especially when the alternative – his fastball – is brutally bad.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all kinds of things. But it sure seems to me that what Matthew Liberatore is doing in the majors isn’t working, Thursday’s results notwithstanding. And maybe… just maybe… he should try to do the things that seem to work more often than the things that don’t work.

What if we lived in a world where Liberatore throws his curveball and slider 50% of the time? Half his pitches. It’s hard for me to believe the results would be any worse than they’ve been so far.

That brings me to what we saw on Thursday night.

In Tampa, Liberatore’s combined fastball rate was down a little. He threw 29% 4-seamers and 21% sinkers. His velocity was up a hair. So was his spin. He generated much better whiff rates than average. Is that a sign of things to come? It’s not a bad sign. But I wouldn’t put much faith in a .7 and .9 mph increase in fastball velocity with a very marginal increase in spin – well within normal parameters for a single game – and assume those pitches are fixed forever. It’s just a day where his fastball worked better. Good for him. He needs those kinds of days.

He also saw an increase in sliders. They were up from 10% to 14% on the year. That’s with a lineup packed full of righties.

That might have come at the expense of his curveball rate, which fell to 18 from an expected 24. He did generate a 67% whiff rate on the pitch on the day. His slider also generated more swings and his whiff rate was up relative to his season.

Liberatore also threw more changeups than ever against the Rays. 19%. His normal rate is 7.8%. He throws so few of them that I don’t know what to make of that. He does have an xwOBA of .263 with the pitch. It was a terrible pitch last season (.462 xwOBA) and he’s not generating many whiffs off it. But as a 5th offering and a different look against righties, I’m fine with him throwing it. (He doesn’t throw it to lefties.)

That’s the point. Liberatore has five pitches. His curve is very good. His slider is at least above average, and really good against lefties. His offspeed stuff is working this year.

Just stop throwing so many fastballs! Cue Bob Newhart. STOP IT! (1,000 VEB bucks to anyone who knew that reference without clicking on the link.)

As long as Liberatore can command his non-fastball stuff near the zone – and his heat charts suggest he can – then he should be a better pitcher than he’s been. Maybe a much better pitcher. Because he really can’t be any worse.

Is it that easy? No. I’m just not sure that the Cardinals can get this right for Liberatore. We’re into the second season of this stuff and haven’t seen any signs, outside of a start here or there, that the approach I’m describing is something they want to do.

That’s not surprising. Can you guess where the Cardinals rank as a team in fastball percentage? (No VEB bucks for this one.) No, not first. Second! 53.2% of all their pitches thrown are fastballs. Just behind the Nationals at 54.6%.

It makes little sense to me for the Cardinals to be near the top of the league in fastball usage with a staff full of guys who have less-than-dominant fastballs.

As the rest of the league has fallen in love with sliders – the Giants throw sliders 34.6% of the time. The Cardinals have virtually given up on the pitch. They are last in the league in slider percentage at 16.4%.

That could be the result of not having pitchers who throw a slider. Or it could be organizational philosophy. We’ve seen the Cardinals zagging in their approach to pitching while the rest of the league was zigging the last three or four years. It hasn’t been pretty. And they’re paying the price for it. Liberatore feels like the poster child of this.

Maybe their renewed emphasis on whiffs and K-generating stuff in the trade and free agent markets will trickle down to their pitch usage on their own staff. Maybe not.

Regardless, if the club wants to see more outings like Thursdays from Liberatore’s, it is going to take a commitment to doing things differently. They have a month and a half to figure it out.