Yesterday, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series got dark, as I took on a skeptical tone in looking back on the very dubious winter (non-) moves of Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. Today however, I move on from the perpetual mediocrity Philadelphia seem to be stuck in, and focus on one of the best stories of 2013 – the long-awaited return of the Pittsburgh Pirates to the postseason, and the unexpected rejuvenation of a certain pitcher. It’s Matthew Berry’s fantasy kryptonite – Francisco Liriano. Must. Resist!
If you had been following baseball long enough, you already knew the story on Francisco Liriano coming into 2013 – a tale which spanned the complete spectrum of performance, consistent only in its inconsistency. For those that didn’t however, and saw a guy that posted a 3.02 ERA and 2.92 FIP, notched 163 strikeouts (with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate) in 161 IP, and was worth 3.1 WAR, here’s a quick refresher course;
The Francisco Liriano story can only be described as a roller coaster ride. After breaking onto the scene in a big way as a 22 year-old rookie with the Twins in 2006 (30.4 K%, 6.8 BB%, 2.16 ERA, 2.55 FIP, 3.8 WAR in just 121 IP), Liriano hurt his arm in late August the same year – yet still went out to pitch. 2 innings later, and he was slated for Tommy John surgery, a procedure which kept the lefty out until midway through 2008. Over the next two seasons, Liriano alternated moments of brilliance with horrific outings, finishing 2009 with a 5.80 ERA, and seemed set to become another talent robbed of his potential too young by injury. In 2010 however, Liriano returned to prominence. Striking out 201 in 31 starts, he accrued 4.4 WAR and finished 11th in AL Cy Young voting – the phenom was back, or so it seemed. His return to success was short-lived though; over the 2011/12 seasons, Liriano would be plagued with wildness, amass a combined 5.23 ERA over 52 starts, and after being traded to the Chicago White Sox, lose his rotation spot a mere month before hitting free agency. The ‘What If?’ narrative was once again pertinent.
Heading into 2013 then, Liriano wasn’t exactly a hot commodity on the free agent market – yet was asking for a two-year contract as a minimum. In need of pitching depth though, Pittsburgh were the only club to bite, first offering a 2-year, $12.75 million deal, only to nix the initial contract when Liriano broke his right arm in a Christmas Day prank. In a compromise of sorts, the two sides eventually agreed on a $1 million base salary for 2013, and a vesting option for 2014 laden with incentives should Liriano avoid the DL. By taking a low-risk flyer on Liriano, the Pirates snagged what would turn out to be the most underpaid pitcher in baseball during 2013 – a player whose eventual performance (measured by WAR) was worth closer to $15.5 million. As noted by Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, “Liriano missed qualifying for the ERA title by one inning. Had he qualified, he would have had the third-lowest opponent OPS (.611), third-best opponent slugging percentage (.314), fourth-lowest opponent batting average (.224) and fifth-best ERA (3.02) among National League left-handers.” The two pitchers ahead of him? Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw. What changed then, for Liriano to once again be one of the best left-handers in the league after appearing ready to wash out of the league just a year previous?
Simply put, Liriano abandoned the four seam fastball that had been the primary cause of his erratic control and home run problems over the prior two years, instead turning to the sinker as his only ‘hard’ pitch. Liriano also drastically upped his slider usage; from a mark of 28.18% at the beginning of 2011 – back when he was with the Twins – Liriano was throwing 41.58% of his pitches as sliders by the end of 2013. Not only did his BB/9 rate return to an acceptable level (3.5 BB/9 in 2013, as opposed to the 5+/9 he had issued in the four preceding years), but Liriano’s previous issues with HR/9 rate also subsided (0.5/9 in 2013). With a strong emphasis on pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his sinker and slider, Liriano induced more ground balls than the years previous – and yet rather than evolving into a pitcher aiming for contact, still struck out more than a batter an inning. Left handers in particular, (as my Reds will attest after their lefty-heavy lineup generated only 4 hits in 7 innings of 1 run ball pitched by Liriano in the NL Wild Card game), fared horribly when facing Liriano; over the season, lefties combined to hit just .131/.175/.146, one of the most statistically dominant splits produced in major league history.
Pittsburgh coaching staff have claimed that the broken arm was actually a blessing in disguise for Liriano is re-discovering his form, special assistant Jim Benedict stating “because he spent so much time in extended spring training, he had time to get his delivery right and build his arm up slowly.” Whether true or not, Liriano’s new and improved approach was a catalyst for the Pirates (the team won 17 of the 26 games started by Liriano) in their breaking of the 20-year playoff drought, and his consistent production gives hope for the year ahead. The Pirates will need him too; having let staff ace AJ Burnett go (it seems like at this juncture) without making any meaningful free agent acquisitions this winter, they’re banking on the fact that 2013 NL Comeback Player of the Year has finally figured it out. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the years with Francisco Liriano however, it’s to expect the unexpected. Whether the Liriano lottery pays out for a second straight year will go a long way in deciding whether Pittsburgh can keep their newly minted playoff streak alive.