Or did they? I pick the games every day. Perhaps you know that. As such, I see trends. I also follow the games in the evening and on Monday night, I was watching as Francisco Liriano again won big with scary, impressive numbers. My first thought was, “Anybody could have had this guy.” He was unwanted. His career was in such disarray that he could not ask for much money. It only took a million dollars for the Pirates to sign him. They did not do so until February. How lucky is that to get a pitcher pitching as well as Liriano for a million bucks that anyone else could have signed? Maybe not so lucky.
The questions posed by the first paragraph simply cannot be answered. Would Liriano be pitching as well for any other team? Was Pittsburgh just the right spot for him? In other words, the crux of the question is whether the Pirates got lucky signing such an effective pitcher or have they reached him and coached him to the point where he responded really well and may not have done so elsewhere. The Pirates turned around a similarly lost pitcher in A.J. Burnett last year.
To me there are only four possible answers and I will not pretend that I can answer definitively which is the truth here:
- The Pirates struck lightening in a bottle
- Liriano’s success once again proves that it is easier to pitch in the National League
- The Pirates have restored his mechanics and confidence
- He is really no better, only luckier this year.
That is it. Those are the only possible answers. Let’s take a look at them individually starting with the last one.
Francisco Liriano is not the same pitcher as he was a year ago or for the past few years for that matter. The biggest difference is his control. For the past two years, his walk percentage was five per nine innings. That is extremely high. This year, it is still high at 3.5 per nine, but that is significantly better and his best rate since 2010 and it shows in his stats.
His first pitch strike percentage is way up from 53.7% a year ago and a terrible 49.4% the year before to 58.4% this year. That is above his career average and his best since 2010. His zone percentage is not really higher, but his pitches out of the zone are being swung at with a much higher rate. So he is closer to the zone enticing batters to swing.
And the quality of his pitches is up. His slider has always rated high. It did last year and that pitch is just as good this year as it was last year. But his fastball scored abysmally the last two seasons and is scoring much better this year. The biggest significant change is his change-up. That pitch was valued negatively the past two seasons but is worth 6.3 runs above average this year, the best of his career.
So no, this is not luck. His BABIP might be down a bit from his career average but that might be because he is making better pitches.
What about this thing about pitching in the National League? There is simply not enough data to make a determination. He has pitched twice in American League parks this season. Once was in Comerica to play the Tigers and that did not go well. The second was in Anaheim to play the Angels and that went swimmingly.
There is something to be said about pitching to the number 8 and 9 spots in the National League that is totally different in the AL. With the DH, the AL has hitters from 1-9 in the batting order. That is not the case in the NL. For example, this season, Liriano has a minuscule OPS against of .317 against eighth place batters this season and .357 against the ninth slot. Last year, that was .513 against the ninth spot and .636 against the eighth. The year before was much higher on both. So there is some difference pitching in the NL for him.
The Pirates took a calculated risk in obtaining him. And really, at a million dollars for this season, it was a no-brain risk. Liriano has always been a high tools guy who many felt was misused in Minnesota. That organization values strikes and low walk totals and that is not what Liriano is. He is a swing and miss guy with walk as part of the equation. It is similar to taking a power hitter with high homer rates and a lot of strikeouts along with the package.
The Twins made his strikeout rate a question mark instead of an asset. He was always in the doghouse because of his walks. That is just who he is. The Pirates are letting him go out there and do his thing.
Have the Pirates helped him with his mechanics? I do not know. It is highly likely. Have they helped him with his confidence? You would think that would be the case.
The Pirates made a calculated risk in signing Liriano and it has paid off in spades. Other teams could have made the same deal and did not. It may or may not have worked out the same for those teams had Liriano gone anywhere else. It is not one of those hypotheticals you can answer. But he is 14-5 with a 2.66 FIP.
Liriano’s RA9-WAR of 3.7 is currently eighteenth among all Major League starters, and this is despite having six less starts than the leaders. If he had those six starts, he would be in the top ten. His FIP is sixth in all of baseball and those above him and just below him are the Who’s Who of pitchers.
And he is the kind of shut down guy that everyone says you need in the post season. Whether the Pirates got lucky, or were shrewd, or have coached well or whatever, the Francisco Liriano to the Pirates story has been a real success story. Anyone could have had him. But the Pirates are the team that does. In fact, of all the stories in Pittsburgh in this first Pirates’ winning season in forever, Francisco Liriano’s might be the best story of them all.