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GIF Breakdown: Matthew Liberatore’s MLB Debut in 23 GIFs

A breakdown of Matthew Liberatore's MLB debut

What’s up everybody! Today was a wonderful day for prospects making their MLB debuts. Not only did we get the debut of Adley Rutschman, but we also get the debut of Matthew Liberatore!

Before we get started, here’s some background on Liberatore—the current No. 39 prospect in baseball was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays with the 16th pick of the 2018 MLB Draft and traded to the Cardinals in 2020 in exchange for José Martinez and Randy Arozarena.

Last year, in Triple-A for the Cardinals, Liberatore struggled a bit, pitching to a 4.04 ERA and 4.26 FIP with a 23.7% strikeout rate through 18 starts and 124.2 innings. But so far this year, he’s looked a good bit better, pitching to a 3.83 ERA and 3.84 FIP with a 28.4% strikeout rate through seven starts and 40 innings.

The scouting report on Liberatore shows he isn’t one of those guys who’s known for a power fastball—though he’s got a solid one. The pitch typically sits in the low-90s and maxes out at 95-96 MPH.

But what Liberatore is known for are his two breaking balls—his 12-6 curveball that sits around the upper-70s and his slider that sits in the upper-80s. He also mixes in a changeup here and there.

Anyways, that’s enough background! Here’s a look at what Liberatore did in his MLB debut (and pro-tip, make sure to hit the HD option on the GIFs).

 

First Inning

 

If you’ve ever read any of my GIF breakdowns before, you know I always love to see what a rookie throws as his first pitch in the majors. Usually it’s a fastball, and Liberatore followed that trend in his first pitch to Ke’Bryan Hayes:

Unfortunately, it was a ball, but given the situation and the fact that he’s probably extremely nervous, I think it’s forgivable.

After working to a 1-1 count, we got our first look at Liberatore’s curveball, and it’s a nice one.

That thing came in at 73 MPH and has a load of movement on it. Given how slow that thing is, even if he’s just throwing 92-94 MPH on his fastball, the speed difference between those two pitches could easily be a problem for hitters if Liberatore is able to consistently command that curveball.

Anyways, enough gushing about that curveball (I love curveballs). After working to a 2-2 count, we get another curveball and Liberatore gets his first out in a Major League game.

Up next was Bryan Reynolds, who popped out to first base on a first-pitch fastball up.

Then, it was Michael Chavis‘ turn. After two sinkers get Chavis to an 0-2 count, we get yet another curveball:

And Liberatore gets not only his first MLB strikeout but gets through his first MLB inning unscathed.

 

Second Inning

 

The second inning was a good bit rougher for Liberatore, and we saw some of the issues that I worry might plague him if he can’t get them under control (all of this being said with the caveat that this is his MLB debut and he could be a bit nervous).

Another thing I like to pay attention to in an MLB debut is what pitches a guy goes to in a key spot. Liberatore gets to a 3-0 count on Ben Gamel, all on fastballs that he can’t locate in the zone. So what does he go to 3-0?

Unsurprisingly, a fastball, but one he can locate. Unfortunately, after that, he throws yet another fastball outside and issues a walk.

Next up is Diego Castillo, and yet again this starts on a 2-0 count, this time on a changeup then a fastball. Then, this happened:

Liberatore tossed a fastball over the middle of the plate and Castillo launched it 104.8 MPH to left field, nearly a home run. Now, I think Corey Dickerson kinda goofed up on that play, but still, Liberatore is very lucky that wasn’t out of the park.

Next up is Yoshi Tsutsugo, and after getting to an 0-1 count, Liberatore loses the grip on a fastball that goes past Yadier Molina, allowing a run to score.

Then, on the 1-1 count, we see Liberatore’s slider, and it’s high and outside:

On the next pitch, we get yet another double.

That’s a 106.7 MPH rocket launched by Tsutsugo, absolutely launched.

Next up was Rodolfo Castro and Liberatore got very lucky here:

That’s a sinker right down the middle of the plate. Luckily for Liberatore, it was just a popout, but it could’ve easily gotten launched for an extra-base hit had Castro not gotten under it.

Next up was Michael Perez who launched a high fastball out to the warning track for a flyout.

Again, worked out nicely for Liberatore, because that pitch was 100.1 MPH, 390 feet, and had an xBA of .560. That could’ve easily ended way worse.

Jack Suwinski was up next and on the first pitch, we got a beautiful curveball from Liberatore.

I love that. The way it just bloops in there right on the corner for a strike, if he’s able to do that consistently, that’s going to be a serious problem for major league hitters, especially given its speed in comparison to his fastball.

Suwinski eventually worked to a 3-1 count and got a high fastball that yet again popped out to center field, and Liberatore made it through inning number two.

 

Third Inning

 

Hayes was up to start the third and on a first-pitch fastball, hit a lineout to right field, giving Liberatore a quick out.

Up next was Reynolds and after getting to a 2-0 count, Liberatore throws what’s actually a pretty solid changeup that unfortunately pokes through for a double.

I don’t fault Liberatore there, that’s a solid changeup and just some better hitting from Reynolds.

Up next was Chavis, and after working him to a 3-1 count, Chavis hits a well-placed changeup on the ground and Liberatore gets to appreciate having Nolan Arenado at third.

Beautiful play by Arenado, an absolute bullet right to first base. I have to imagine Liberatore was sitting there thinking “oh man it’s so nice having Nolan Arenado at third base.”

Ben Gamel came up next and got in the hole 0-2 after two curveballs, including this beauty:

Gamel worked it to 3-2, but then Liberatore utilized that curveball one more time and got a strikeout.

Inning over without any major issues.

 

Fourth Inning

 

Diego Castillo was up to start the fourth and Liberatore got him into an 0-2 hole, then a 1-2 count before Castillo chased an outside curveball for a groundout.

Tsutsugo came up after that and worked to a 1-1 count until chasing this slider and breaking his bat.

That’s actually a pretty good slider, it just happened to poke its way through the infield for a hit. Once again, good pitching from Liberatore, it just didn’t work out.

Castro came up next, worked to a full count, and after a total of seven pitches (including three foul balls), Liberatore lucked out again.

That’s a pretty poorly-placed fastball that Castro got on top of and hit into a double play to end the inning.

 

Fifth Inning

 

Liberatore came into the fifth inning at 64 pitches. Personally, I was slightly surprised they let him keep going, though not totally. Sixty-four pitches is a lot of pitches through four innings, and often teams are delicate with their top pitching prospects, but on the other hand, Liberatore had only given up a couple of runs through four and I’m sure the Cardinals wanted to give him an opportunity to get the win.

So on to the fifth inning we go.

If there is one GIF I want you to pay attention to in this breakdown, it’s this one. This was the first batter of the fifth inning, Michael Perez, and this was an absolutely beautiful sequence from Liberatore that I think exemplifies where his strengths lie.

Curveball, curveball, slider, and Perez is grabbing some pine. That’s a killer sequence and it was beautiful to see. That is what I want to see from someone like Liberatore—trust in his breaking pitches.

Up next was Ke’Bryan Hayes who absolutely launched this inside slider 104.5 MPH for a single.

Next up was Bryan Reynolds and folks, this is where it gets ugly.

Reynolds worked to a full count, and then Liberatore hung a curveball up high and this happened.

Yep. That’s an inside-the-park home run. All in all, I think this was a pretty tough break for Liberatore. Yes, he hung a curveball up high (though that’s not always a bad thing), but that hit had an xBA of just .210.

Unfortunately for Liberatore, the wind (which was absolutely nuts in Pittsburgh during this game) carried this ball out to the wall, and then it ricocheted off the wall across the outfield.

I think you could also argue that, yet again, Corey Dickerson misplayed this ball, which helped lead to the inside-the-parker. But given the wind (which, again, was nuts and was shaking the camera), I’ll give Dickerson the benefit of the doubt and say that was a tough play.

Anyways, Michael Chavis was up next, and on a 2-0 count, Liberatore laid a fastball down the pipe and Chavis didn’t miss it.

Right to center field for a double—that’s why you don’t throw fastballs down the middle, not even to the Pirates.

Ben Gamel came up next, worked to a full count, and Liberatore tossed a high sinker to walk him.

After that, it was all she wrote for Matthew Liberatore, he was taken out of the game and didn’t get a shot at securing his first major league win.

 

Conclusion

 

Liberatore’s final line isn’t great: 4.2 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 3 K, 2 BB.

But despite that, I think there’s still a decent bit to be encouraged about (but also plenty to be concerned about).

Let’s start with the positives: The guy has really good pure stuff, and I especially see why scouts have fawned all over his curveball, because it’s a pretty sweet pitch.

That curveball and his slider are both really good pitches, and if they’re commanded well, I think they can both be plus strikeout pitches (the curveball had a 48% CSW on the night, so yea, that’ll play).

The fastball and sinker work, they’re nothing overly special. Both are pretty low-spin pitches, just 1,989 RPMs on average on his sinker and 2,048 on his four-seamer, both of which would be in the bottom-tier of the league. But you also don’t need a high-spin fastball or sinker to be successful (just ask Kyle Hendricks and Patrick Sandoval).

But overall the stuff is good. The problem is his control and command. There were way too many at-bats that worked to full counts or ended up at 3-2 or 3-1. Now, I’ll concede this was Liberatore’s debut and certainly nerves could be a factor that could lead to poor control, but still, that’s a major concern.

That 74 MPH curveball is a great pitch, but when it’s hanging over the middle of the plate, it’s a batting practice pitch. And as you saw in some of the above GIFs, Liberatore got very lucky on some really bad pitches.

Now, the list of rookie pitchers who have great stuff and poor control is a mile long. Is Liberatore destined to become yet another? Not necessarily. It’s hard to make a full judgment on a guy based on just one start, let alone his major league debut.

But here’s what I will say about Matthew Liberatore: I see why he’s touted as a top prospect. He’s got the stuff, and if he can rein in the control, we could easily be looking at a Max Fried type, and that’s a pretty darn good pitcher.

As for fantasy prospects, I don’t think he’s someone you need to pick up just yet. Keep an eye on him for sure, see what the Cardinals do, if he gets sent back down or if he stays up for some more starts, and how his next starts end up. But for now, I’m holding off on picking him up (unless you’re in a super deep league) until I see he can rein in that control.

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Ben Palmer

Managing editor at Pitcher List. Lifelong Orioles fan (which can be....painful at times) and a Ravens/Wizards/Terps fan. I also listen to way too much music and watch way too many movies.

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