Pitch to contact.

It's a phrase whose meaning seems completely obvious to everyone who hears it -- except that nobody seems to be able to agree, exactly, on a definition. For some, it means that you should put the ball over the plate repeatedly, eschewing both strikeouts and walks and relying completely on the defense behind you for your success. For others, it means you should rely on your stuff and put the ball over the plate, and let the balls fall where they may. Maybe some people don't even see the difference between those definitions.

Sometimes, it can seem like "pitch to contact" is the only way some guys can survive in the league; could Nick Blackburn succeed if he were nibbling on the corners and walking guys in an effort to strike them out, or does he need to put the ball in the strike zone and hope the balls find gloves?

But other times, "pitch to contact" seems foolish, like when you're talking about the antithesis of Nick Blackburn, one Francisco Liriano. His main talent is inducing swings and misses -- literally pitching away from contact -- and that has always been where his value lies. This, I think, is what frustrates so many fans when the Twins insist to Liriano that he should be pitching to contact. It seems, from far away, that he should be doing the exact opposite of that.

And, from my vantage point far away, it seems like Liriano also thinks that he should be doing the opposite of that. In 2010, Liriano had an unusually high 33% of balls put into play become hits behind him -- a pitcher doesn't have total control over how many balls the defense will convert into outs behind him, and all pitchers generally allow between 29-30% to become hits -- which is why his tremendous strikeout-to-walk ratio didn't translate into an equally-sparkling ERA and win/loss record. It's a primary reason Liriano's 2010 was described as "unlucky." It stands to reason, then, that Liriano would react by avoiding contact, by trying to take more of the game into his own hands, by trying to rely less on his defense, which had repeatedly failed him all year.

This spring, I went to a game at Hammond Stadium that Liriano started. He only last three innings -- and he struck out nine guys. Every out he recorded was via a strikeout. Of course, he also allowed four hits and three walks; and those seven baserunners in three innings amounted to one run. That start was a microcosm of everything that is right with Liriano, that is wrong with Liriano, that goes Liriano's way, and that goes against him. And it's further evidence, I think, in the mind of the pitcher that he can't rely on the defense. If the batter makes any contact at all, they get a hit. So why in the world would he want to pitch to contact, and thus get shelled?

What I'm saying is that I can fully understand why Liriano would think that pitching to contact is a bad idea, and why he wouldn't want to submit his chances for success to the sub-par defense behind him, and to the cruel fates who've decided that luck isn't on his side.

And I can also easily understand that the Twins don't want him trying to do everything himself -- you can't strikeout everyone, and if you try you'll end up throwing too many sliders out of the zone and walk a guy every inning and run your pitch count so high you have to get pulled early in the game. A pitcher has to understand that he cannot control every outcome; he can only put himself in the best position to take advantage of the breaks that must eventually come his way.

But the real definition of "pitch to contact" continues to elude. Gardy has done his part to inject some confusion into the dialog:

"We understand that he can strike people out, but if he really wants to become a pitcher, pitch to contact."

Statements like that lend credence to the "pitch-to-contact means stop trying to strike people out" camp, of which Liriano apparently counts himself a member (after a start against the Royals in which he successfully "pitched to contact" while giving up five straight singles):

Liriano said he was "throwing more fastballs than I used to in the game today," adding, "I just wanted them to put them to put the ball in play, not try to strike out a lot of people."

This debate has been raging among fans all season, fueled by the burgeoning loss column, and by each miserable Liriano start, and by Pavano's league-worst strikeout rate.

On Monday, the heavyweights of the Twins blogosphere drew lines in the sand. Nick Nelson took the position that the Twins have been trying to tell Liriano to pitch well, and that his struggles are all on him and his command.

When Liriano was struggling he was barely throwing 50% strikes. How does that qualify as "pitching to contact"? Seems like an excuse. (@nnelson9)

I'd say that yesterday Liriano did exactly what the Twins want him to do. Throw strikes early in count, get ahead, then unleash the nasty. (@nnelson9)

Aaron Gleeman took the position that "pitch to contact" doesn't seem to exactly mean the same thing as "pitch well," and that the Twins have been confusing.

And you're saying the Twins basically just wanted him to pitch well, in which case they sure phrased that oddly. (@aarongleeman)

If they just wanted him to "throw strikes" I don't see why they wouldn't say that. What they said was different. (@aarongleeman)

So you're saying all the Twins did was phrase "throw strikes" poorly and now Liriano is just making excuses? That's a tough sell. (@aarongleeman)

Nelson continued:

I think it's clear Twins wanted him to do just what he did yesterday. 66% strikes, lots of quick outs, still plenty of K's. (@nnelson9)

"Pitch to contact" is just their terminology. People acting like they were trying to turn him into Duensing is insane. (@nnelson9)

I think he gets in a mentality sometimes where he gets too fine, tries to make every pitch unhittable, racks up huge p-counts (@nnelson9)

Saying, "Throw the ball over the plate early in the count, your stuff is great, don't be afraid of contact" = right approach. (@nnelson9)

So, after watching the argument from the sidelines,* who's right here?

* Gleeman later pointed out that "having long, public Twitter conversations with people you often instant message with feels weird." Basically, this was a private conversation, one that friends and strangers have had thousands of times in every bar in the country ... and this one had an audience of thousands. I'm going to go ahead and call this one of the wonders of Twitter.

Nelson's basic premise assumes that he understands what the Twins have been trying to say with their "pitch to contact" mantra. That when they say "pitch to contact," they don't mean "be like Nick Blackburn and give up a lot of hits," which is how it sometimes seems. So what are the Twins saying about that?

To clarify, it wasn't that Gardenhire and Anderson instructed Liriano to get rid of the strikeouts and pitch to the barrel of opponents' bats in April. They simply told Liriano, "Don't be afraid (of contact)," Anderson said.

"You can't strike everyone out on the first pitch. Your stuff's pretty good to get to two strikes. ...

"That was basically 'attack them more, trust your stuff.' But if you back up farther, it's more or less, 'keep yourself under control and let your pitches work,' like you saw (Sunday)."

Rick Anderson, clearly, falls into the "what the Twins mean is that pitch-to-contact means 'pitch well'" camp. (Which is utterly unsurprising, of course, because it strains belief that the pitching coach would actively want to make Liriano a worse pitcher, which has sometimes been the accusation around the blogosphere.)

It seems, then, that Nelson has understood what the Twins have been trying to say in way that many others haven't. When the Twins explain themselves more explicitly, they're saying exactly what Nelson says they mean. Still, it's hard to quibble with Gleeman's position that a) why not just say "throw strikes and trust your stuff" and scuttle the "pitch to contact" terminology that is so confusing? and b) whenever Liriano has tried to "pitch to contact" he's been focused on the contact and it hasn't worked at all.

Liriano, meanwhile, may have misunderstood the coaches in the same way that most fans have. Here's what he said after another bad start last month:

"To be honest, yeah, it's a little bit hard for me," Liriano said about pitching to contact. "But I want to go deeper into games, I don't want to be throwing four innings, five innings. Whatever I have to do to go deeper into games."

And this week, after nearly no-hitting the Rangers:

"I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people," Liriano said. "I'm not the guy who's going to get 10 groundballs or 12 groundballs in a game. I'm trying to be me, (the way) I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all. ...

"I feel more comfortable pitching like that (power guy)."

So, if there are misunderstandings among the fans as to what exactly the Twins mean when they say "pitch to contact," well, I don't think it's that surprising. They haven't successfully explained it to their best pitcher either. Is that Liriano's fault, or is it on Gardenhire and Anderson? Like most failures in communication, I think a little bit of blame goes to both sides.

Gleeman and Liriano, like Nelson and the Twins, all have a point. Liriano does need to learn to pitch, and he can't just try to strike everyone out every time. He needs to learn to rely on his defense, but even more than that he needs to learn to trust his stuff -- hitting a baseball is the hardest thing you can do, and Liriano's stuff is good enough that most major league hitters can't make good contact even when it's in the strike zone. Liriano needs to grasp the intrinsic difficulty of hitting, and take advantage of it. Part of that is that he needs to stop dancing outside the zone in hopes of tempting the hitter to swing at something he can't even reach.

At the same time, though, the Twins need to make more of an effort to explain to him what exactly they mean when they tell him that. A good teacher isn't one that is always right -- it's one that knows his students well enough to say exactly what each of them needs to hear in order to learn. "Pitch to contact" might be clear enough for Blackburn, but it is obviously not clear enough for Liriano. So they should probably stop saying it, and stick to different platitudes like "throw strikes" and "trust your stuff" when it comes time to teach him.

It's a learning moment for everyone, then, from the fans to Liriano to the Twins. All thanks to an oddly public conversation on Twitter.

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14 June 2011