Francisco Liriano has fanned 24.7 percent of all the batters he has faced since the start of 2012. In none of the three seasons did he strike out fewer than 24 percent, and in none did he pitch fewer than 150 innings. In his two-season stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he also became a near-elite inducer of ground balls. Both of those skills—the two most valuable ones a pitcher can have, really—have helped Liriano overcome his persistent issues with walks. He’s not a workhorse, but he’s everything else a team can hope for a starting pitcher to be.
He won’t be treated that way this winter. The Pirates attached a qualifying offer, a ball and chain at his feet, a poisoned pill, call it whatever you want, and that will substantially dampen the interest teams would normally have in him. His history prior to 2012, and really, prior to 2013, will only deter teams further. Liriano has reputations, for wildness, for fragility and for inconsistency. In truth, though, he’s a very good (and much-improved, in a real and lasting way) pitcher when he’s healthy, and 2011 was the last time he missed time with an injury to his pitching arm.
Sometimes, narratives coalesce and ossify around a player, even as evidence that strongly refutes the narrative piles up. Liriano could probably pitch well from now until he’s 40, and never fully overcome the notion that he’s always one pitch away from a breakdown. There’s a place in every rotation for a guy who will make 27 starts in a season, but be much more than replacement-level when he does. Unfortunately, some teams don’t see it, and will spend forever chasing 200-inning guys who may or may not actually pitch well.
Compare Liriano to the two starters in whose company he’s most often mentioned this winter, Brandon McCarthy and Ervin Santana. McCarthy recorded an even 600 outs this season, blowing away Liriano, besting even Liriano’s career high in innings, from 2008. However, it was not only the first time McCarthy had reached that plateau, but the first time he’d gone past 171 innings. Until 2014, McCarthy’s career high in batters faced in a season was 690—or precisely the number Liriano faced in 2014. Liriano has made at least 24 starts in each of the past six seasons. McCarthy has reached that number just twice, with 25 starts in 2011 and 32 in 2014. McCarthy is three months older, but Liriano has thrown 200 more innings in the big leagues.
I’m building a bit of a straw man here. If McCarthy makes more than Liriano this winter, it’s more likely to be because he is unburdened by any draft-pick compensation than because teams actively prefer him. There’s also an argument that McCarthy has a cleaner skill set, although I don’t buy it. McCarthy had a 20.9-percent strikeout rate in 2014, which is a bit above average but nowhere near Liriano territory. It’s also a career-high figure for him, by a mile, by a mile and a half. He walks many, many fewer batters than Liriano—he’s the zone pounder, Liriano is the bat misser—but that skill set tends to be less durable and predictive than simply racking up strikeouts. It’s also more dangerous, because it means better pitches for opponents to hit. Liriano maintains a lower opponent batting average on balls in play and allows fewer home runs than McCarthy, and I’m not inclined to think either fact is a fluke.
Again, though, comparing Liriano to McCarthy is too simple, and probably unfair. Both are part of a broader pitching market, and specifically, the second tier of available arms, after Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields. Jake Peavy and Jason Hammel have claims to being on the fringe of the same group, but only Ervin Santana really belongs with Liriano and McCarthy. I’ve already written about Santana’s free agency this month, and about who he is, so I won’t belabor those points here. Suffice it to say that, while more durable than Liriano and better at missing bats than McCarthy, Santana puts me more in mind of the pitchers who have turned out to be free-agent mistakes over recent winters—Edwin Jackson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco, especially—than of guys who have surprised people and delivered strong value.
Liriano is clearly the most desirable of these candidates. He’s not in league with the top-tier arms, but he’s also not going to even approximate their salaries. No pitcher figures to deliver better value on the free-agent market for starting pitchers. Someone will soon be glad to have taken the perceived (though, as we’ve shown, not all that real) gamble on Liriano.
I have some stray notes on Liriano, more about the mechanisms of his improvement than about market factors or teams’ valuation of him, that I want to deposit here. Consider them footnotes, really. They need be read only if you remain skeptical of Liriano’s breakout tenure with Pittsburgh, and need further evidence that he will continue to succeed. That said, they’re interesting, and I hope you’ll take the opportunity to learn more about Liriano.
- Through the 2012 season, Liriano used both a four-seam fastball and a sinker, and mixed them roughly evenly. The sinker, though, was much more effective. The four-seamer got hit hard when he elevated it, which was too often. In 2013, he scrapped the four-seamer and went with the sinker as his sole fastball. He mixed the four-seam heat back in in 2014, but only on rare occasions. That’s contributed to his improved ground-ball rate, as well as his ever-improving ability to prevent hits on balls in play. Rare are the cases when a pitcher fixes himself by taking a pitch away, especially at this level and while starting, but that’s what happened here.
- Liriano began throwing his slider to the first-base side of home plate against right-handed batters much more frequently upon his arrival in Pittsburgh. He’s been more and more comfortable using the pitch against them ever since. It’s still a pitch most often ticketed for the back foot of a righty with two strikes, but the ability to move it around and keep it away from hitters who might severely punish a mistake has helped.
- Liriano’s fastball velocity sagged in 2011, as he dealt with a shoulder strain. Since 2012, though, he’s slowly, steadily (and marginally; he’s not suddenly throwing 97, so don’t get too excited) increased his average velocity. He now sits comfortably at 93 or 94 miles per hour with the fastball. In 2014, he sustained that while taking about a mile per hour off his slider and changeup, increasing the separation between the pitches. That helped him induce more whiffs per swing than ever before in his career.
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