Oh how I wish my left-handed father had pushed me to be left-handed as a child. Take the case of Francisco Liriano who was at one time one of the best hurlers in the game (his 2006 season is one of legend as he had a 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.71 K/s per nine, a 4.50 K/BB ratio an a 12-3 record before blowing his arm out). Despite his talent, the road has been extremely bumpy the last few years for Mr. Liriano. There have been periods when he has locked things in, but the majority of the last few years has been spent with middling production being par for the course. I mean, what would you think about the following player if you didn’t have a name associated with it and just looked at the numbers?
Career: 53-54, 4.40 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 2.38 K/BB
I know what I would think, and it’s not kind. Since 2005 when Liriano began his career here are the numbers of the average AL hurler: .500 winning percentage, 4.26 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 2.15 K/BB. Those numbers paint Liriano as a league average arm. The numbers worsen, substantially, the past two years as Liriano has gone 15-22 with a 5.23 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 1.72 K/BB ratio. Given the dearth of effective production on the hill, especially over the course of the past couple of years, is there any reason to expect Liriano to be worth starting on a consistent basis in 2013?
Long a strikeout arm, Liriano has two issues working somewhat against him. First, his velocity is down two mph from his heyday of 95 mph (on the plus side he did add over a mph to his heater in 2012 when compared to 2011). The second issue is that his velocity on his slider is down two mph. This was the pitch that made him, like Steve Carlton in his salad days, nearly untouchable when he was on. The pitch is still effective but it lacks that extra giddy up that made it such a dominating pitch a few years back. There are still days when it all comes together for Liriano, it happens every year (he struck out 25 batters in back-to-back starts in July), but for the most part he’s just not as effective because, chiefly, his stuff isn’t quite as good.
This loss of stuff is normal for all hurlers as they age. Usually, if a guy is an elite talent, they learn how to work around this. Maybe they add another pitch. Maybe they study game film more closely. Maybe they change up the patterns they use to attack batters. In the case of Liriano maybe he studies more and maybe he changes up his patterns, but he is still a predominantly two pitch hurler who will also throw the change up to keep batters off balance. His 2012 usage (50 percent fastball, 33 percent slider, 17 percent change up) is virtually identical to his career marks (51/31/18). The biggest issue probably isn’t a lack of growth with this lefty, it’s been an inability to consistently locate his pitches.
From 2005-10 Liriano walked an average of 3.18 batters per nine innings, a tenth better the AL average during that time. The last two years he’s nearly added two full batters to that mark walking 5.01 batters per nine innings. I could have honestly started and ended this profile with just this number (the amount of pitches he throws inside the strike zone has dipped from 55 percent in 2006 down to 39 percent last year). There is no way a pitcher can be consistently effective if they have an BB/9 mark over five. It just can’t be done (hell, even Mr. Walk, Nolan Ryan, walked 4.67 batters per nine innings). This lack of control does a couple of things. One, Liriano’s WHIP goes up and obviously that leads to an increase in his ERA. Two, his lack of control emboldens batters to spit on his off-speed stuff. Third, it means he’s often forced to pitch to batters behind in the count which means he has to ‘give in’ to the strike zone more than he should – if he can control the pitches. Given all of that, it’s rather amazing to think that he still struck out over a batter per inning in 2012. Moreover, he’s struck out 8.63 batters the past two seasons, not that far off his career 9.06 mark, so it’s clear that when he’s dialed in and gets ahead in the count he can still put batters away.
So what to do with Liriano? Take a shot. He’s still got a pretty impressive arm, even if he doesn’t spin pitches like he did years ago. He’s still more than capable of dominating any lineup on any day, but there is significant downside here. Don’t forget this guy has had an ERA in the 5′s an a WHIP over 1.45 in three of the past four seasons. It doesn’t matter how many punchouts you get with numbers like that. He’s worth a few bucks in mixed leagues, or a reserve round add in snake drafts, but you cannot make him a foundational block for your pitching staff unless your goal is to allow someone else to win the league.
NOTE: Liriano agreed to a 2-year deal reportedly worth $14 million to pitch for the. That’s a solid place to pitch, there’s no pressure there, an a move to the NL all signal that the arrow is pointing up with Liriano.
By Ray Flowers