ST. LOUIS — Radhames Liz has made two appearances since his recent call up to the Pirates. Those appearances have been fantastic, with high 90s velocity on the fastball, and a tight slider — a combination you’d want from any reliever. It’s probably too soon to say that Liz is a good option for the long-term Pirates bullpen, but a quick look at how he got to this point shows that this recent success might not just be the product of a small sample size.
The Pirates made a surprising move over the off-season when they signed Liz to a one-year, $1 M deal. The surprise was that Liz was given a guaranteed deal, when all signs pointed to him being worth no better than a minor league contract.
The Pirates had to make that offer because Liz had an offers from Korea and Japan for guaranteed money. But Liz hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2009. He was out of the majors and minors from 2011-13. He pitched briefly in Triple-A in 2014, but had poor results. The Pirates saw something they liked in the Dominican Winter Leagues, and that led to the aggressive pursuit.
Liz made the major league roster out of Spring Training, but struggled with the Pirates. He did have a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 innings, but his 4.49 xFIP suggested that wouldn’t continue. He also wasn’t consistently showing the velocity that he had in the Dominican Winter Leagues, continued with control problems that had plagued his previous appearances in the majors, and wasn’t comfortable with his relief role.
After going down to Triple-A, Liz quickly moved back to being a starter, and began having a lot of success. He was back to showing that amazing velocity, sitting in the upper 90s throughout the game. He also started showing better control numbers in the process. That control has carried over to the majors, as Liz has shown an increase in working in the strike zone this time around, while getting less contact in the zone in the process.
A big part of the change was that Liz wasn’t originally comfortable in the reliever role, despite that being the only option for him in Pittsburgh.
“It was going to take some time to get comfortable in the reliever’s role,” Clint Hurdle said to me before today’s game. “I think the contrast he had was making the big league club, pitching in the big leagues, and then being in an unfamiliar situation. So there was some confusion I think on his part in how he needed to get ready, what he needed to do to stay sharp. We tried to help him with that. It didn’t play out as well as we wanted, or as quickly as we needed.”
Hurdle said that going down for Liz helped him clear some of the noise and focus on what he needed to do to be successful in the bullpen. The Pirates initially tried him as a reliever, then moved him to the rotation. When September was approaching, they moved him back to the bullpen to give him a heads up of his September role. This time around, Liz felt a lot more comfortable.
“I just feel comfortable going to the bullpen,” Liz said of the role this time around. “It wasn’t hard at all to go back to the bullpen. I just feel like I belong [there]. Now I feel way more comfortable than I felt at the beginning of the season.”
But it’s not just being more comfortable as a reliever that led to the stronger results from Liz. He spent time in Triple-A working on his mechanics, which also played a big factor in his success. He focused on staying on his back foot longer, not opening up too early, and most importantly, staying straight to home plate in his delivery. His mentality also changed to focus on being more aggressive.
The combination led to better control numbers, due to the improved alignment to the plate, and better velocity due to the aggressiveness. And that’s not something that Liz consistently had his first time through the majors with the Pirates, even though he’s always been capable of this velocity. Hurdle said that he still wants to get a few more looks at Liz, but did notice the velocity improvements and that Liz is more comfortable in the role. He also noted that the slider is improved, looking “sharp, hard, and crisp.”
“The fastball out of his hand, it’s top velocity right away, where last time it was taking sometimes 15, 20, 25 pitches for him to get to his zenith velocity,” Hurdle said. “I see a guy who is more comfortable in the role, but I think he’s more confident in that skill set now in that role as well.”
Hurdle said that he talked this morning with Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor, and one of the guys they discussed was Liz. Hurdle went over the recent outings with Treanor pitch by pitch. He said that Treanor told him that Liz is in a very positive place for the recent success.
“The repeatable delivery, the alignment to the plate, staying aggressive, and it’s an aggressive thought,” Hurdle said of the takeaway from his conversation. “It’s a pitch thrown with commitment. Not hoping it’s going to spin, or hoping it’s going to be hard. It’s coming out of his hand much better.”
Treanor definitely has a lot of knowledge of what Liz can do. He managed Liz in the Dominican Winter League last year, and was part of the influence to sign him after his strong results. He then oversaw the transformation in Indianapolis over the summer. If anyone could give an assessment of where Liz is currently at, it would be Treanor.
Liz is in an interesting contract situation. He will finish the year with one year and 47 days of service time, meaning the Pirates would have him under team control for five more seasons. He’s also out of options, so he would need to remain on the MLB roster for good. That’s not going to be an issue if this success turns out to be legit.
It’s only four innings and two appearances so far, but there’s a lot to like about Liz. His velocity is way up there from pitch one. His slider is improved. His control is much better. This gives him an upper 90s fastball, a great out pitch, and improved control, which is the recipe for a late inning reliever in the majors. These trends are all a continuation of what he showed with Indianapolis, leading a little more credit to the idea that Liz has made some lasting changes.
If he continues showing these improvements through the end of September, then he could lock down a spot on this team for the 2016 season. He should certainly get a chance at this, as he appears to have quickly caught Hurdle’s attention. Even without thinking about the future, an improved Radhames Liz would give the Pirates another hard throwing reliever down the stretch, adding another weapon to a rapidly improving bullpen.