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Liriano wants to be innings-eater with Tigers

Lefty, who has penchant for walks, issues 2 free passes in scoreless debut
MLB.com @beckjason

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The high fastball from Francisco Liriano coaxed a called third strike from home-plate umpire Joe West, and an air of discontent from Yankees slugger Gary Sanchez. It was the 20th pitch of Liriano's first inning as a Tiger, which he ended with back-to-back strikeouts of Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton after the left-hander walked Aaron Judge.

Tuesday's two scoreless innings were a microcosm of what Liriano brings to Detroit, and most of the places he has pitched in the Majors. He has the inconsistencies to pitch his way into trouble, and the nasty pitches to work his way out of it.

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- The high fastball from Francisco Liriano coaxed a called third strike from home-plate umpire Joe West, and an air of discontent from Yankees slugger Gary Sanchez. It was the 20th pitch of Liriano's first inning as a Tiger, which he ended with back-to-back strikeouts of Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton after the left-hander walked Aaron Judge.

Tuesday's two scoreless innings were a microcosm of what Liriano brings to Detroit, and most of the places he has pitched in the Majors. He has the inconsistencies to pitch his way into trouble, and the nasty pitches to work his way out of it.

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Liriano wants to change that this year.

"My main focus this year is to eliminate the walks, make something happen with three pitches or less," Liriano said. "That's what I'm working on right now."

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If that approach sounds familiar, it's something David Price referenced often during his Tigers tenure. Price took the approach early in his career and turned into an innings-eating ace, and was eventually the most sought-after free-agent starter on the market.

Liriano is trying to convert at a later point in his career after lingering on the market into Spring Training. The 34-year-old enters his 13th Major League season having topped 165 innings in just two of those years and having averaged six innings per start in four of those seasons.

Part of that is due to health, but an equal part is Liriano's penchant for walks, which seems to go in tandem with his rash of strikeouts. He walked two batters in as many innings Tuesday, but also fanned three. Liriano allowed just three balls in play, the last an inning-ending double play from red-hot slugger Miguel Andujar after the lefty fell behind him on a 3-0 count.

The other two balls in play were quick. Didi Gregorius flied out to center on the second pitch of the game, and Greg Bird singled on a 2-0 pitch.

"I thought he looked really good," catcher James McCann said. "That was my first time catching him. And I thought he came out, threw the ball very well for his first time. His stuff looked pretty sharp. He got himself into a little bit of trouble in the first inning and pitched out of it through a pretty heavy lineup, and that was impressive to see."

Manager Ron Gardenhire appreciates the intent at efficiency on Liriano's part, but he also acknowledges Liriano's pitching style leads to his strikeouts and walks.

"We like the thought process, to try to get it done in as few pitches as you can," Gardenhire said. "But as we all know, guys that strike people out normally throw a lot of pitches. They miss out of the zone a lot on purpose, trying to get people to chase. And Frankie's always been a big changeup guy that gets people to chase and chase and chase. He's going to have a lot of 3-2 counts. He always has. But he can dominate with that 3-2 count because he's got a couple pitches that fall out of the zone.

"But I like the thought process, and if he wants to try to get it done in two pitches or less or three pitches or less, I'm all in."

Liriano threw 19 of his 36 pitches Tuesday for strikes. He realizes it's not an easy change to make this late in his career.

"For me, it's going to be a challenge," he said, "because the last couple years I've been having a lot of trouble walking guys and getting behind in the count a lot. Just gotta keep working hard and working between starts and try to find a way to get better with that.

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"I'm not trying to be too fine and pick at the plate early in the count. Just let them put the ball in play and let the guys behind me make some plays for me."

A quick-out strategy will require a different approach to hitters, and different pitches early in the count than Liriano is used to delivering. His career first-pitch strike percentage of 55.9 is 3.5 percent lower than the league average during his tenure, including a rather low rate of 54.4 percent last year.

A quick-contact mode should cut down on the walks, but it'll likely drop his strikeout rate, too. Liriano's career rate of 9.179 strikeouts per nine innings ranks seventh-best among active pitchers and 14th all time, according to baseball-reference.

"To be honest, yeah, I'd be willing to lose some walks and some strikeouts," Liriano said. "As long as I go deep in the game and try to keep my team in the ballgame, I'm going to be fine with that."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

Detroit Tigers, Francisco Liriano