Last Saturday marked the three-year anniversary of the Red Sox signing right-hander Chih-Jung Liu as an international free agent out of Taiwan.
Formerly a two-way player in high school and a switch-hitting shortstop in college, Liu received a signing bonus of $750,000 from the Red Sox to work strictly as a pitcher. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tainan City native did not make his professional debut until last July. He made one start in the Florida Complex League before spending the rest of the 2021 campaign with Low-A Salem.
After compiling a 4.29 ERA in 12 starts with the Salem Red Sox, Liu broke camp with High-A Greenville earlier this spring. In many ways, this season was a sophomore slump of sorts for the 23-year-old righty.
Through July 3, Liu had posted an unsightly 7.07 ERA and 6.30 FIP with 59 strikeouts to 25 walks in his first 15 appearances (13 starts) and 56 innings for the Drive. He was allowing more than two home runs per nine innings while yielding a .286 batting average against.
On July 6, Liu was placed on the development list. He did not appear in a game for the next nine days before returning to the mound on July 15. From that point forward, Liu pitched better, though the results were still not great.
In his next 10 outings (eight starts) for Greenville, Liu produced a 4.87 ERA and 6.84 FIP to go along with 47 strikeouts to 21 walks across 44 1/3 innings of work. His strikeout rate rose and his batting average against fell, but he still surrendered 2.64 homers per nine innings and walked nearly 11 percent of the batters he faced.
All told, Liu pitched to a 6.10 ERA and 6.54 FIP in 25 appearances (21 starts) and 100 1/3 innings with the Drive. Among the 18 South Atlantic League pitchers who tossed at least 100 frames this season, Liu ranked ninth in strikeouts per nine innings (9.51), 10th in strikeout rate (23.7 percent), and fourth in swinging-strike rate (14.9 percent). Yet he also ranked 14th in walks per nine innings (4.13) and walk rate (10.3 percent), 17th in batting average against (2.82), and dead last in homers per nine innings (2.42), WHIP (1.57), ERA, and FIP, per FanGraphs.
As inconsistent as those numbers may be, Liu still earned a late-season promotion to Double-A Portland. He made one start for the Sea Dogs on the road against the Somerset Patriots on September 18 and allowed two runs over 3 2/3 innings. Fittingly, one of those two runs came by way of the long ball.
Listed at 6-feet and 185 pounds, Liu possesses an athletic delivery and operates with a five-pitch mix that consists of a 93-95 mph four-seam fastball that tops out at 98 mph, a mid-90s two-seam fastball, an 80-82 mph changeup, an 83-86 mph slider, and a 78-80 mph curveball. He also used to throw a splitter as an amateur.
Liu, who turns 24 in April, spent his first two seasons in pro ball ranked by Baseball America as one of the top pitching prospects in Boston’s farm system. He has since fallen off the publication’s rankings, but he is still young enough that he could get back with a bounce-back effort in 2023.
On that note, SoxProspects.com projects that Liu will return to Portland for the start of the 2023 season. He can become Rule 5-eligible for the first time in his career next fall, so pitching his way onto the Sox’ 40-man roster could serve as some form of motivation for him.
(Picture of Chih-Jung Liu: Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.smugmug.com)