Tonight's 9-2 loss to the Angels lasted over three hours, but the only significant highlights, from the Pirates' perspective, came in about a two-minute span in the second inning, when Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang hit back-to-back homers off Jered Weaver. There are many nice things we can say about that two-minute span, such as that Jung Ho Kang suddenly looks like the second coming of Juan Gonzalez. It was a wonderful two-minute span!
The rest of the game, not so much. The Angels scored nine runs, including seven off Francisco Liriano and two off Wilfredo Boscan, and the Pirates' offense mostly failed to adjust to Weaver's dialup-slow fastballs and frisbee breaking pitches. I don't see much point in cataloging all of it, so let's focus on Liriano.
He was bad. And maybe, at this point, he is bad. Tonight, Liriano lasted just 3.1 innings, striking out two batters, walking four (one intentional) and throwing just 40 of his 76 pitches for strikes. Two months into the season, he has a 5.25 ERA, with 38 walks and 12 home runs allowed in 61.2 innings. He's mostly retained his velocity and ground-ball rate, which is good, but he simply can't throw his fastball for strikes (let alone locate it within the zone). He frequently gets behind in counts as a result, and his inability to command his fastball mutes the impact of his other pitches, particularly his usually-deadly slider.
Today, he frequently used the fastball as his first weapon, leading to lots of hitters' counts. In the first inning, his fastball got him into a 2-0 count against leadoff hitter Yunel Escobar, who wound up singling on a 2-1 pitch. Then he walked Kole Calhoun. Then he gave up a first-pitch single to Mike Trout. Then he walked Albert Pujols on four pitches ...
Well, I promised I wouldn't catalog. But it's worth noting that even in the plate appearance that inning that produced the best result (the one that ended with Carlos Perez grounding into a double play), Liriano first got into a 3-0 count. He got into 2-0 counts over and over. He simply had no idea where the ball was going.
The Pirates have had plenty of pitching issues this season -- Jeff Locke, Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio, Arquimedes Caminero, Kyle Lobstein and others have all, at various times, caused their share of problems. But Liriano has frequently gotten a bit of a free pass (certainly from me, and from others as well), mostly because he's supposed to be good, and there have been other people to focus on.
At this point, though, Liriano has been as bad as anyone. I'm not sure what the Pirates can do to fix him, but right now, he's a problem. And it isn't as if he's never struggled before -- the Liriano who's flailing now looks a lot, statistically, like the Liriano who flailed in 2011 and 2012, before the Bucs acquired him. (In 2011, Liriano posted 7.5 K/9, 5.0 BB/9 and a 48.6 percent ground-ball rate with velocities and usage patterns very similar to those he's posted this year.) There's time for him to turn things around, but it will be hard for the Pirates to be a top team throughout the rest of the regular season, to say nothing of the playoffs, if Liriano continues to stay in this familiar-looking rut.