Francisco Liriano and the Slow Death of ERA

The Pittsburgh Pirates have reportedly agreed to sign Francisco Liriano to a two year, $14 million contract. It’s an interesting deal, and we’ll talk about the specifics of Liriano and the Pirates in a second, but I first want to look at where this deal fits into an interesting off-season trend.

From a runs allowed perspective, Francisco Liriano was terrible last year. Just like he was the year before, too. By RA9-wins, Liriano has basically been a replacement level pitcher for the last two years, putting up an ERA- of 127 over that span. Of the 109 pitchers who have thrown 250 or more innings since the start of the 2011 season, Liriano’s ERA- ranks 104th. In terms of preventing runs, he’s been better than only Chris Volstad, J.A. Happ, Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, and Brian Duensing.

From a FIP perspective, though, Liriano has been a bit better. Not good, but better. We’ve got his WAR (based on walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed) over the last two years at +2.9, making him a below average — but not abysmal — starter. Liriano’s stuff and peripherals suggest that he should get better results going forward than he’s gotten in the past. And if his stuff and peripherals are right, then 2/14 for Liriano could easily be a bargain for the Pirates.

But here’s the thing; Liriano’s stuff and peripherals have been saying this for a while, and he’s been underperforming his FIP for nearly his entire career.

Season IP ERA- FIP- xFIP-
2005 23 132 77 46
2006 121 48 58 53
2008 76 91 91 98
2009 136 132 112 101
2010 191 88 64 70
2011 134 125 113 112
2012 156 129 104 100
Career 840 104 89 87

With the exception of his remarkable 2006 season and a half year comeback in 2008, Liriano’s ERA hasn’t been anywhere close to his FIP or xFIP. In 2009, 2011, and 2012, xFIP suggests that Liriano has been something like league average. In 2009, 2011, and 2012, ERA suggests that Liriano has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Even in 2010, when his results were good, they weren’t nearly as good as his BB/K/HR rates suggested that they should be. The last time Liriano’s results matched his peripherals, Lou Piniella won Manager of the Year, Geovany Soto was Rookie of the Year, and Randy Johnson was still a member of the Diamondbacks rotation.

This is the kind of track record that gets a pitcher described as an outlier. For whatever reason, Liriano has been consistently terrible at stranding runners, and while it’s easy to write that off as a fluke over a year or even two, it gets a bit tougher to believe that this is all just random variance in sequencing when he’s at 840 innings pitched and has a career LOB% under 70%.

But yet, here are the Pirates, paying Liriano for a performance that requires his FIP to be the more predictive aspect, not his his strand rate and ERA. This deal follows on the heels of the Angels giving Joe Blanton essentially the same contract for the same kind of paradox. And it follows Zack Greinke getting paid like an ace, even though you have to disbelieve in the predictive power of ERA to believe that Zack Greinke is an ace. And it follows Anibal Sanchez signing an $80 million contract coming off a couple of seasons where his ERA- (96) had him as a decent starter but his FIP (87) had him as one of the better starters in baseball. Toss in Scott Feldman getting $6 million from the Cubs, and this has been a pretty profitable winter for starting pitchers who posted much better FIPs than ERAs over the last few years.

Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse and his 74 ERA- are still sitting on the market, with no real rumors to suggest that any team is actively pursuing him in a serious way. Joe Saunders, who had a better ERA than Edwin Jackson last year and has a better career ERA as well, is still on the market after watching Jackson sign a $52 million contract with the Cubs yesterday. Brandon McCarthy, who has an 83 ERA- over the last three years — the best total of any free agent starter this winter — signed a contract that pays him basically the same total as Liriano and Blanton. Obviously, there’s extenuating factors related to McCarthy’s health, but it’s interesting that the guy who posted the best three-year-ERA of the entire class signed the same deal as two guys who were well below average in terms of runs allowed since 2010.

Not every pitching acquisition has followed this trend, of course. Jeremy Guthrie got paid for his history of run prevention, even though FIP and xFIP hate him. The Angels offset their Blanton acquisition by trading for Jason Vargas, whose value is reliant upon low BABIPs and HR/FB rates. Teams don’t appear to be beating down Roy Oswalt‘s door, even though his peripherals suggest that he could still be a pretty effective pitcher for someone next year. I’m not saying that teams don’t care about ERA anymore. But they certainly appear to be caring about it less, or at the least, giving more credit to pitchers who have given them reason to think that maybe their future ERA will be better than their past ERA.

That’s what the Pirates are betting on with Liriano. They made this exact same bet with A.J. Burnett last year — he was coming off two roughly replacement level seasons by RA9, but had been just a bit below average by FIP — and it paid off big time, as he gave them 200 excellent innings for a bargain price. But Burnett had a better track record than Liriano, had been healthier than Liriano, and hadn’t seen the same wild velocity fluctuations as Liriano, and they still only had to pick up $13 million of the $33 million he was owed in 2012-2013 when they acquired him from New York. A year later, they’re paying $14 million for Liriano, a worse version of the same idea.

It’s a bet that’s probably worth making, especially for a team that isn’t going to be landing any frontline starters at frontline starter prices, but it’s worth noting that the price for these kinds of pitchers seems to be going up pretty quickly. Guys like Liriano used to have to settle for one year deals, but now, teams are betting multi-year contracts on their peripherals being more predictive than their ERAs.

After years of overpaying for unsustainable results, it seems like MLB teams have made adjustments, and are now better identifying which pitchers to go after in free agency. A high ERA no longer means that you’re not getting paid. That’s what I call progress.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


61 Responses to “Francisco Liriano and the Slow Death of ERA”

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  1. Jon E says:

    This was a good read. Thanks. Lohse probably hurt by being tied to losing a draft pick as much as anything else….

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  2. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    “Not every pitching acquisition has followed this trend, of course. Jeremy Guthrie got paid for his history of run prevention, even though FIP and xFIP hate him.”

    Ah, Dayton Moore, you wily maverick!

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  3. Disembodied catcher's mitt says:

    Perhaps the Pirates think Liriano will benefit from Russell Martin’s pitch framing ability…

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    • Wil says:

      Maybe, though strikeouts have never been a problem for Liriano. It could help his BB/9 rate but by how much?

      Also he is pretty homer prone, which isn’t helped by his poor strand rate and control.

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      • Spit Ball says:

        Nor is his Strand rate aided by his control or propensity to allow dingers. He racks up K’s by getting guys to chase pitches so a good Framer might turn some walks into K’s. He gives up dingers when he really challenges hitters. The only way pitch framing helps that is to keep guys off base so he does not have to challenge hitters. Remember his no hitter a couple years ago with all those walksand sharply hit balls at fielders. Vintage Liriano.

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    • Tim says:

      I’ve noticed that Liriano has very sharp differences in his performance due to the size of the strike zone. I haven’t figured out whether it’s a pitching thing or a gameflow thing or a psychological thing or some of each, but it will be interesting to see how he does with Martin.

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  4. marlins12 says:

    This is nice and all, but isn’t this still a terrible deal?

    How many teams truly valued Liriano at 2/14?
    They must think he can cut down on the walks or that their team defense is better than defenses he’s had playing behind him in the past.

    Even his peripherals aren’t that great. + he also has the durability concerns unlike a guy like Joe Blanton who was mentioned.

    This is the same team that let Jeff Karstens go for nothing like they had a surplus of SP earlier this offseason.

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    • Jeff Akston says:

      Liriano had a 10 start stretch last year where he pitched 63 innings with 2.84 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Along with 77 Ks, 28 walks, and a 45% GB rate allowing only 3 home runs.

      During that 10 game stretch, he allowed the following line: .171/.270/.252. He surrounded that with absolute crap, and obviously we have to look at his entire season for value. But if he definitely still has the talent in him. Moving to the NL should help. A completley pressure free environment in Pittsburgh. Maybe he recaptures it.

      If he can put something remotely similar to that, he will have massive trade value at the deadline (especially since he’ll have another year @ $7MM on his contract).

      I think this is totally worth the money for the Pirates. The upside far outweighs the risk.

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      • Heather says:

        The NL central is arguably the worst division in baseball and the Twins weren’t playing for anything last year…

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      • Kent Bottenfield, All-Star says:

        I had a really great half season, too! Perhaps I can recapture that magic in Pittsburgh!

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      • Heather says:

        Scuze me, AL central.

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      • SKob says:

        AL Central / NL Central – Potato…

        That is the argument, so it’s kinda funny how you promoted arguing against your own point with a typo.

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      • larrybernandez says:

        I could point you to a 6 game stretch where he failed to strikeout more men than he walked every start. Neither is completely indicative of what the Pirates are getting. But unless a bunch of teams were in on him, which could be very possible, this contract really isn’t what I expected, especially in length. I’d of thought Liriano would want a 1 year deal to rebuild his value, if he had a lot of confidence he could.

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  5. JMan says:

    There are readily identifiable baseball skills that influence strand rates and ERA, which should make teams reluctant to favor FIP in contract negotiations (Pitching out of the stretch, pitching under pressure, speed and ambiguity of delivery, pickoff ability, etc). I’ll take a large sample size of ERA over all the FIPs and WHIPs in the world.

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    • kevinthecomic says:

      This is what I was thinking. If the guy has a statistically significant sample size of not stranding runners/under performing his FIP, wouldn’t the rational conclusion be that there is a fundamental problem, like he can’t pitch from the stretch? I agree with the conclusion that FIP should dominate ERA, but man, don’t get married to the model (also known as the Christie Brinkley rule).

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    • Bip says:

      A whole lotta this.

      The point of FIP is to predict ERA, since what we really want is for a pitcher to prevent runs. FIP is more reliable that ERA in small samples because LOB% and BABIP are very unstable, so if you have one season of data, you go with FIP because it uses data that is much more stable and therefore is more useful for the purpose of making predictions.

      However, we also know that pitchers have influence on stranding runners and on BABIP, we just don’t know how. So, assuming a pitcher has a true-talent strand rate and BABIP, then eventually we would have enough data that the rates themselves should be indicative of true talent. We have 840 innings or 5 whole seasons of data on Liriano. That is enough to draw some conclusions about BABIP and LOB ability.

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      • vivaelpujols says:

        Really? Because according to actual research, BABIP takes about 8 years to be 50% predictive compared to league BABIP.

        http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=14293

        I can’t find anything on strand rate, but a large part of Liriano’s high ERA’s is tied into his high BABIPs and even with his long career we still need to regress his BABIP halfway to the mean.

        I find the DIPS backlash recently to be rather insufferable. It’s true that pitchers have some control over non K and BB events, but most of what shows up in the statistics is noise.

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      • vivaelpujols says:

        If it wasn’t clear, I would take somewhere between Liriano’s FIP proection and his ERA projectiong going forward. Definitely not either/or.

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      • PL says:

        “The point of FIP is to predict ERA”

        Actually it isn’t. Its to show how good a pitcher is by himself sans the other 8 players’s defensive influence. Its a counting stat not a predictive one.

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    • Greg says:

      So wait, why do people agree with this about Liriano but not Greinke?

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  6. Sparkles Peterson says:

    I want to wait until more of the FIP over-performers sign before I’m willing to buy into this hypothesis. If you discount Feldman’s and Blanton’s underwhelming deals, this could boil down to something as simple as a few of the extreme FIP under-performers having the stuff to make GMs take a chance on them.

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  7. J. Cross says:

    I agree that Liriano is a good bet.

    Keith Law suggests in his top free agents article that Liriano pitches worse with runners on base which is an interesting hypothesis.

    In 2012 he threw his fastball a few tenths of a mph faster with men on base so it he doesn’t seem to lose velocity when pitching from the stretch.

    He did strike out more batters with the bases empty (11.3 K/9 with compared to 7.6 with runners on). In 2011 it was less extreme (8.1 bases empty v. 6.7 with runners on).

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    • A.S. says:

      As a Twins fan, watching Liriano pitch for years I’d have to agree with Keith Law. When Liriano puts a runner on first he suddenly starts to melt down. You can see it happening every time. Suddenly he can’t locate his pitches and he’ll throw ball after ball or he’ll throw a cookie.

      It happened so predictably almost every single time. If he could get past that, I think he’d greatly improve. It’s a huge issue right now though.

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      • Wil says:

        Sounds like he has some mechanical issues out of the stretch. Perhaps it would be smart simply to ignore the base runners and pitch out of the wind up all the time.

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      • brendan says:

        @wil, you can’t use the windup with men on base because it is too easy to steal bags — slow to the plate

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      • Bip says:

        I don’t think a pitcher is even allowed to pitch from the windup with runners on. With men on, a pitcher has to plant his foot on the rubber, bring his hands together and “come set”, which means freezing with his hands together, and then any motion from there has to be directly delivering a pitch or throwing to a base (both of which require the back foot to remain on the rubber) or he has to step off the rubber, at which point no pitch can be delivered.

        Correct me if I’m wrong but I think that’s the rule.

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      • The Ronin says:

        You are wrong Bip, pitchers can pitch from the Wind-up with runners on but it is almost an automatic stolen base for runners due to the length of delivery. Some pitchers do pitch from the wind-up when there are runners on third or bases loaded.

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      • The Ronin says:

        To expand on that the pitcher does still have to come set when he is on the rubber. He can step off the rubber backwards but cannot attempt a pick off as both feet would have to come off the rubber before he can throw to first. Once he begins his delivery he must complete the pitch towards home just as in the stretch.

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      • Spit Ball says:

        @theronin- Only one foot must be on the rubber whether you are in the stretch or windup. As a lefty pitcher you could theoretically pitch from the windup on the third base side of the rubber with only your left foot on the rubber. In that scenario you could step backward with your left foot off the rubber and make a snap throw to first base that would be legal. It would likely keep the runner’s lead shorter. Admitedlly this is still theoretical as runners would still run at will once you stepped back with the right foot to deliver the pitch.

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    • Bip says:

      Your observation that he throws faster with runners on could have a very different explanation. If his mechanics in the stretch are not good, then it’s possible his natural stretch delivery would result in lower velocity, so to maintain velocity, he has to overcompensate somehow, probably by overthrowing. Whatever it is, to maintain velocity he breaks his mechanics which results in poor location. Striking batters out has a lot to do with location, so constant velocity and a much lower K rate should be a good indicator of bad location.

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      • J. Cross says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that he has an unusual difference. Pitchers typically throw a little bit harder with runners on base. It would be interesting to look at his locations split by runners on/bases empty.

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      • Tim says:

        The Twins treated it more or less exclusively as a psychological problem. As a biased Twins fan I figure that makes it very likely to be mechanical, but their theory seems worth mentioning.

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  8. J6takish says:

    I’m not sure I’m ready to buy into this, especially since almost article about FIP mentions how such and such pitcher over performs or underperforms their FIP. Maybe FIP just isn’t a great tool?

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    • You’ve read other articles about FIP/ERA discrepancies, therefore FIP isn’t a good tool.

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    • Bip says:

      FIP is a tool, just like ERA is a tool. They have different uses, and the fact that FIP is not reliable for some pitchers doesn’t negate its usefulness when used correctly. I explain in a previous post.

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    • PL says:

      FIP shows the positive and negative effects of team defense behind a pitcher. If the pitcher has a 2.80 FIP and a 4.00 ERA, he’s way better than his ERA. This article is about how those pitchers with the above line are getting paid nowdays, and the ones who simply have a low ERA aren’t.

      I don’t like the examples of Loshe and the other guys who mean losing a draft pick, that’s literally the only reason why they aren’t signed yet. Rafael Soriano could close on almost every team, but he’s still available because of this reason alone. Is next years draft worth losing a pick? I heard it actually was, but that’s been the shift in recent years: drafting well over paying out guys for their decline years.

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  9. NatKingCole says:

    As I’ve said before, FIP is the Emperor’s New Clothes.

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    • Yeah says:

      A bit of an exaggeration, but it doesn’t mean everything. Unquestionably accepting FIP in place of ERA is the kind of uncritical statistical analysis that leads to poor evaluations, see Matt Cain for instance.

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      • JoeElPaso says:

        RA without the FIP elements has a huge level of noise attributable to chance, to the defense, to the ballpark, and to the pitcher. While FIP captures the most predictability (or, alternatively, SIERA), neither one predict all that much–20 to 30% of the variability. It is not a very good predictor, and should not be overvalued, but the rest of the prediction range is too noisy even to have an opinion. Hence, FIP can be bad and yet better than the alternative of projecting ERA.

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      • Yeah says:

        You’re right, and I don’t mean to say that ERA should be the only measure used either, what I really mean is that using either uncritically and as the one stat you look at is bad statistical analysis and basically lazy.

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      • PL says:

        It shows if the pitcher is better/worse than his defense. That’s it.

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  10. Sophist says:

    Couldn’t it just be that salaries are inflating across baseball so that even guys like Blanton and Liriano are able to get 2/14 deals? Edwin Jackson is young and has SO stuff, but he and his 4.10 ERA/100 ERA+ in his last three seasons (~600 IP) just got 4/$52M. Not to say that Jackson is a mediocrity but these contracts should be evaluating in the context of the FA market.

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  11. mcbrown says:

    I suspect this says much more about scouting vs. ERA than it does about FIP vs. ERA. It’s not just that Liriano’s peripherals have exceeded his ERA on average, it is that he has a habit of flashing streaks of absolute brilliance in between long stretches as a sub-replacement pitcher.

    I imagine the Pirates (and other teams – I expect the Pirates didn’t come up with 2/14 out of the goodness of their hearts) were looking at his upside and thinking they can “fix” him, an idea that may well have merit but requires extensive consultation with scouts and coaches. I highly doubt the Pirates are valuing his peripherals in a vacuum.

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    • Dan Greer says:

      Yeah, the Pirates are making a calculated gamble here, and the funny thing is they may not need to fix him at all. The Twins reportedly tried to get Liriano to buy into their orgizational “pitch to contact” philosophy, when he is a guy with poor command and great strikeout stuff. I believe they messed him up, and eventually just gave up and let him be who he was, with better results. I don’t have any explanation for what happened in Chicago though – but I’m actually optimistic that he can turn it around with a fresh start.

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    • Tom says:

      Also if his mechanics are different, it could change how pitchers pick up the ball – maybe he’s easier to see out of the stretch and h

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  12. jim says:

    i’m pretty surprised liriano got a 2-year major league contract while rich harden only got a minor league deal

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    • Dan Greer says:

      Harden is constantly in danger of his arm becoming detached at the shoulder. His stuff is greatly diminished, and he is always hurt. Liriano has been fairly healthy since his TJ surgery several years back.

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  13. Matt says:

    For my part, the low ERA had nothing to do with my dislike for Liriano. The simple fact is, he has little to no command of the strikezone. Early in his career this wasn’t a problem because his stuff was so good and his fastball was deadly. A few years ago however, the league started to figure out that if you don’t swing at his junk pitches, and since he can’t depend on his fastball as much anymore due to multiple injuries, that you can either wait for him to walk you or throw you a cookie when he tries to not walk you. He might see success his first go through the National league, but sooner than later they will figure him out as well.

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  14. Tom says:

    George W. Bush did WTC

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  15. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I think this article makes too many assumptions which brings it down. Most notably, it assumes that the Pirates are choosing their pitcher by FIP, instead of what I am quite certain they are choosing it for: Opportunity. Even by FIP, Liriano has been at best worse than league average FIP-wise for the past two years. So if they’e paying him by FIP, they’re pying 6 mil for below average. That’s still not a good deal at 5 million a win. Similiarly, the bit about A.J. Burnett and the Pirates is pracitcally a straight-up lie: His FIP the two years before had been 4.77 and 4.83, when this website says a 4.00 FIP should be about average(And even if you bump that up to 4.20…). This website suggests a FIP between 4.50 and 5.00 would be between “Poor” and “Awful”. Only xFIP suggested Burnett was anything other than terrible.

    The fact is the Pirates are paying him for 2010 and because the Pirates don’t have the money to usually pay someone with 2010 performance. The Pirates also paid Burnett not for his two previous Yankee years, where he was horrible by any measurement save xFIP and only below “Below Average”/”Poor”(He was 0.07 away from Poor) one of those years. They were getting him in hopes he would rebound to 2007-2009, where he was average or better by ERA. This is because the Pirates are a small money team and cannot afford the aces. But when the Yankees pay half of Burnett or they can potentially get a 3.62 ERA for 6 mil, they have to take that risk/reward. So no, it doesn’t have anything to do with FIP, it has to do with taking the risk of a rebound because they are a low fund team.

    Kyle Lohse is presumably still on the market because teams are bidding on him and he is hoping to see how much he can get. McCarthy got his deal so low solely because of the injury history: He’s only played more than 100 IP twice in his career and one was only 111 IP, so he has not provided the value his stats, ERA or FIP, would say. And Saunders is 2 years older than E-Jax. Also, Edwin Jackson had an ERA of 4.03, Joe Saunders had an ERA of 4.07: So E-Jax had an insignificantly better ERA anyway. So I fail to see how organizational attention to FIP is that big of a deal in these.

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    • Bip says:

      Even by FIP, Liriano has been at best worse than league average FIP-wise for the past two years. So if they’e paying him by FIP, they’re pying 6 mil for below average.

      Whether or not they are paying him by FIP isn’t the issue. What they are paying him, certainly, is the lowest they can pay while still having him come to their team. That is informed almost entirely by what other teams are willing to pay for him. If no other team was willing to give him even one year at one million, you can bet he’d go to the Pirates at one year and one million.

      So the question isn’t “what is Liriano worth according to FIP”, it’s “what sort of value does the league put on Liriano and why?” I don’t think the league is valuing Liriano as one with absolute faith in FIP would. The main thing we can probably conclude is that the league is valuing Liriano as someone better, or potentially better, than his ERA suggests.

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        He was probably getting some one year deals and maybe a cheaper two year deal. They’re not valuing Liriano as someone better than his ERA because of his FIP: They’re valuing him that because of his 2010. Odds are a bunch of low teams offered low end deals and the Pirates put the best low offer in. But plenty of teams other than the Pirates would pay, say, a cheap 1/6 to see if Liriano has a bounceback year, so the Pirates had to go up to 2/14, something nobody else wanted to give him.

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      • evo34 says:

        How do claim to know why the Pirates signed him?

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  16. Feeding the Abscess says:

    PNC park is extremely tough on RHB HR, and 77 of his 83 career HR allowed have been to RHB.

    Something to think about.

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  17. Pat says:

    It’s easy to rack up K’s and have a decent FIP when you just pitch for 4-5 innings a start and nibble all game, barely throwing any strikes. You will either get pounded or rack up a lot of K’s, and still probably get pounded.

    I would have rather the Pirates signed someone like Lohse or Marcum who doesn’t have the “tools” and wipeout stuff that Frakie has but they each have a better feel for pitching.

    Time will tell if this deal works or not but I tend to give up on guys reaching their FIP potential after countless seasons of disappointment.

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  18. That Guy says:

    No mention of Luke Hochevar and his ERA sucktitude?

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  19. Evan says:

    whatever happened to Erik Bedard?

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