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Francisco Liriano Is A Special Commodity

Much like Liam Neeson in Taken, Francisco Liriano has a special set of skills Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today

Much like Liam Neeson in Taken, Francisco Liriano has a special set of skills
Photo by Charles LeClaire/USA Today

During the run-up to Russell Martin’s free agency, there was a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over what the Pirates would do if they lost him. With good reason, especially for the upcoming 2015 season. But there’s another free agent that didn’t get nearly as much concern from the fanbase — starting pitcher Francisco Liriano.

Liriano will probably forever be seen as unfulfilled potential. He has everything you would want in a starter, except pinpoint control, but has never been truly dominant over a long stretch of his career. This has mostly been because of his lack of durability. Various injuries (including a Tommy John surgery while with the Twins) have prevented Liriano from ever topping 191 innings in a season, which was back in 2010.

While Liriano tantalized in the early part of his career and frustrated in the middle part of his career, now that Liriano is on the back half he seems to reached a career stabilization of sorts. Liriano, although not an innings-eating workhorse, has been a vital part of the past two winning seasons for the Pirates. In each year, he has provided 160’ish innings, mostly high quality, at a performance level in line with a low-end #2 starter. Considering that he was working on a two-year, incentive-laden deal that paid him roughly $12M total, that was a steal for his production level.

Now Liriano is 31 and secured a nice payday of 3 years/$39M from the Pirates as a reward. He was firmly in the second tier of free agent starters behind the Big 3 of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields. Liriano was an important free agent for the Pirates to sign. As a power left-handed pitcher, he slots perfectly between Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett.

Moreso than that, Liriano in 2014 hit the sweet spot for starting pitchers. Liriano finished in the top 10 of all Major League starters in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and ground ball percentage (GB%). When you have a pitcher who can get the hitters to keep the ball on the ground for the defense to scoop AND take care of business himself with the strikeout, you have an extremely valuable asset.

Listed below are the top 10 starters, ranked by K/9. It’s quite a list of luminaries.

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Chris Sale
  3. Max Scherzer
  4. Corey Kluber
  5. Stephen Strasburg
  6. David Price
  7. Francisco Liriano
  8. Jake Arrieta
  9. Felix Hernandez
  10. Jake Odorizzi

And here’s the top 10 for starters, ranked by GB%:

  1. Dallas Keuchel
  2. Tyson Ross
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Alex Cobb
  5. Sonny Gray
  6. Charlie Morton
  7. Francisco Liriano
  8. Kyle Gibson
  9. Jarred Cosart
  10. Zack Wheeler

The only other pitcher to appear in both top 10’s is Felix Hernandez and I’ve heard he’s pretty good.

Liriano is different from most pitchers in that he doesn’t throw predominantly fastballs and then toss in other pitches. In his two years with the Pirates, Liriano has thrown his fastball (mostly a sinking two-seam variety) only 41 and 43 percent of the time. Typically, a starting pitcher will throw the fastball upwards of 55 percent of the time and then mix in two to three other pitches sporadically, mostly as out pitches.

But Liriano blends his three pitches in a manner typically not seen. In 2014, he threw his fastball 43%, his slider 32%, and his change 25%. His slider has always been Francisco Liriano’s money pitch, but in recent years his change is becoming his second best pitch. In 2014, his slider was worth +0.9 runs above average for every 100 thrown and his change was worth +1.29 runs/100 pitches. Although he’s a power lefty that sits at 93 mph, his fastball has never been an effective pitch (-0.9 runs/100 in 2014).

Liriano rebuilt his career in Pittsburgh, thanks to both the run-suppressing nature of PNC Park and the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage. It was Liriano who recommended to Edinson Volquez that he should sign with Pittsburgh, praising Searage and the coaching staff. Francisco Liriano knows he can be successful here, but it is still a business. Maybe Liriano left some money on the table. Maybe if he waited until later in the month or into January, a team that missed out on Lester, Scherzer, and Shields would have caved in and given that 4th year.

Or maybe Liriano just wanted some peace for once in his topsy-turvy career. Either way, the 2015 Pirates are looking way better now that Liriano is in the fold again. A rotation of Cole-Liriano-Burnett-Locke-Worley is solid. Having depth options like Morton (returning around June from hip surgery), Brandon Cumpton, Stolmy Pimentel, Nick Kingham, Adrian Sampson, and Jameson Taillon (returning from Tommy John in April, knocking rust off until July) gives the Pirates a reservoir of options to pull from in case reinforcements are needed.

Liriano’s re-signing not only stabilized the rotation, but it propelled it to legitimacy in the race for the playoffs in 2015.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.