The incredible invisible Adam Liberatore
By Cary Osborne
Adam Liberatore’s locker in the Dodgers clubhouse is in a high traffic area. Right next to his is Julio Urías’.
It’s the closest a swarm of reporters get to him.
After he pitched a scoreless two-thirds of an inning on Wednesday and the question was asked if he had a minute to speak, he gave an, “um.”
It was almost like a, “Who? Me?”
Liberatore has been one of baseball’s best relief pitchers thus far in 2016. And he’s been somewhat invisible.
It’s the perfect existence for a middle reliever — one of the most maligned types of baseball players.
If no one’s saying anything bad about you, it means you’re probably doing a good job.
But Liberatore deserves a lot of good to be said about him.
Among relievers who have pitched at least 20 innings this season, Liberatore ranks third in the Major Leagues with a 0.75 ERA. He hasn’t given up a run since May 18 — that’s 18 consecutive games without surrendering a run. That May 18 game — in which he gave up two runs to the Angels — was the only game this season in 32 appearances that he has given up a run.
The 18 games is the 15th-longest scoreless games streak in Dodger history, according to Baseball Reference. If he reaches 22 games it would be the fifth-longest. J.P. Howell went a Dodger record 36 games without giving up a run last year.
Of the 24 runners he has inherited, five have scored. That 20.8 percent is 13th among 40 qualifying relievers in the National League.
“I’m just going out there trying to execute pitches,” Liberatore said. “Just coming in there with a game plan and trying to execute pitches and feeling out the at-bat.”
It’s actually hard to explain Liberatore’s success using statistics, which makes what he said the most believable answer as to how he’s getting batters out.
He has not been a ground-ball pitcher (39.7 percent ground-ball percentage: 115th among relievers) and hasn’t been a fly-ball pitcher (37.9 percent fly-ball percentage: 69th among relievers).
His strikeouts per nine innings are slightly above Major League average for a reliever, and his 3.4 walks per nine are right on the average.
He’s not consistently getting soft contact and not consistently getting hard contact.
His .250 opponents’ batting average on balls in play doesn’t really say he’s been lucky or unlucky. No crazy spin rate, no blow-away fastball, no elite-rated pitch in his bag.
Another interesting note about him is his best pitch — a four-seam fastball, which he uses 64.3 percent of the time this year, according to Brooks Baseball, is down 2 mph from last year (93.7 to 91.7, according to Fangraphs).
Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis recognized it without being prompted about Liberatore’s velocity.
“I think last year he had little more velocity on the ball,” Ellis said. “But there’s a confidence and conviction in everything he throws. It’s hard to measure. But from a catcher’s standpoint, you can definitely feel that.”
Liberatore said watching video has helped him plan for batters better.
“I think with film and stuff and being able to use film and watch hitters, I’m able to have a game plan,” he said. “I work hard and try and be as consistent as I can and execute whatever plan I have for a hitter.”
The lefty specialist is holding left-handed batters to a .143/.218/.245 line. Great numbers — the batting average and on-base percentage numbers put him in the top 15 in baseball. And he has not surrendered a home run this year.
But Liberatore has had some success in the past.
Last year, Liberatore had a 1.29 ERA after his first 15 games and pitched 24 games before surrendering a home run. His ERA in those 24 games was 2.75.
He had two bad stretches — one in June when he surrendered runs in three consecutive games and one in July when he gave up runs in three out of four games. The total was nine earned runs in 5 1/3 innings.
Take those away and he allowed five earned runs in the other 24 1/3 innings (1.85 ERA).
In seven minor league seasons, Liberatore has a 2.72 ERA.
Maybe it just took a while to notice him.