It’s the second consecutive season that Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington has taken on an American League pitching reclamation project. After finding success with A.J. Burnett following his trade from the New York Yankees last season, Huntington signed Francisco Liriano to a two-year deal over the winter, after restructuring the contract following an injury to Liriano’s non-pitching arm. Both pitchers were coming off successive seasons with earned run averages above five and much like the Burnett move worked out well for the club, Liriano has had a great start to his Pirates career.
When Liriano has been at his best, he’s generated plenty of ground balls, with percentages above 50% in 2006 (55.4%) and 2010 (53.6%), and has been able to sustain a walk rate below 10%. The move to the National League and PNC Park would also naturally benefit Liriano, as pitchers generally perform better after a switch the NL and his new home stadium favors left handed pitchers, reducing the number of homers hit by right handed hitters. This can be seen further when looking at home runs given up by Liriano last season as six of these 19 homers would not have cleared the PNC Park fences in left field. Liriano had a 4.14 xFIP and 4.12 SIERA over the 2012 season, which present a better indicator of future performance than his above-5 ERAs over the last two seasons – so when the move to the National League and PNC Park were considered then Liriano appeared to be a reasonable gamble by Neal Huntington.
Liriano has completed 36 innings over his six starts so far, giving up just 28 hits, 14 walks and seven earned runs while striking out 47. He’s yet to give up a home run, which has resulted in the pitcher’s FIP (1.62) being below his ERA (1.75). Nonetheless, his xFIP, which is calculated using a home run to fly ball ratio of 10.5%, is still just 2.49. While Liriano has been lucky with stranding runners on base (with a LOB% of 83.3%), opposing hitters have a batting average on balls in play against him of .308, which is slightly on the unlucky side.
The small sample size of Liriano’s season so far is playing a role in his success regardless of the league change and home field advantages, as he’s only faced 152 hitters so far. While strikeout rates tend to stabilize at around 70 plate appearances, and Liriano’s 30.9 K% would be the second highest mark over the course of his career if the left-hander can maintain this, other statistics are not at the point of this level of reliability to judge his performance.
The reason for his increased strikeout rate, which is up from 24.1% last season, can be found by looking at his pitch usages. The below, taken from brooksbaseball.net, shows that Liriano has cut the usage of his four-seam fastball, increasing the frequency that he utilizes his other three pitches, including career highs for his sinker and slider:
Liriano is getting hitters to chase pitches located outside the strike zone on a more consistent basis this season, with his 35.7 O-Swing%, up by 5% in comparison to last season. Batters are also making less contact with the pitches (with a current career low 47.3 O-Contact%). His change-up and slider are his swing-and-miss weapons, with opponents whiffing on 18.0% and 22.5% of these pitches thrown respectively over the course of his career. This season, however, opposing hitters have swung and missed at 25.0% of the 116 change-ups as well as whiffing at 24.5% of the 208 sliders thrown by the lefty. This has resulted in Liriano currently having his highest swinging strike percentage (15.7%) since 2006 (16.4%). Furthermore, he has given up just five hits off of his change and four off of his slider, with all apart from one double off of his change-up limited to being singles.
Liriano has also seen an increase in ground balls, up from 43.8% in 2012 to 49.4% so far this season; however it should be noted that he has only allowed 44 ground balls – below the marker of around 70 balls in play when this statistic can begin to become reliable to judge performance. Nonetheless, this combined with a 9.2 BB% are signs of improvement in the key areas that required progress towards achieving the results of when Liriano has been at his best, with his start on Friday against the Cubs, where walked five hitters, the first real sign of control issues over his first six Pirates starts.
The maximum that Liriano can earn in 2013 is $3.125M and the left-handed pitcher has an option that is currently set to vest at $6M (with a potential $2.5M in performance bonuses). While he’s not going to sustain an ERA below 2.00 for the remainder of the season; Francisco Liriano has had a strong start to his career in Pittsburgh and, at this point, the deal is looking like a potential bargain contract for the Pirates.