Why Trade for Liriano and Use Him as a Reliever?

With Francisco Liriano heating up, and so few teams branded as definitive sellers as trade-deadline season gets ready to kick into high gear, interest in the lefty figures to pique soon. Earlier today, Ken Rosenthal reported that some teams prefer Liriano as a reliever. While Liriano could work out as a reliever, acquiring him to be one seems like a circuitous route to success.

During the last five seasons, Liriano has pitched in 119 games, and has started 107 of them. For much of that time, he has not been a successful starting pitcher — the only season of the five in which he has tallied more than 1.5 WAR was 2010. As a result, teams are going to look at him and wonder, does his stuff play up in the bullpen? Realistically, it’s hard to know.

Looking at his mix of pitches, he only throws two pitches other than his fastball. So, in the sense that he doesn’t have to try to limit his arsenal, or worry about getting beat by a pitch for which he doesn’t have a good comfort level, he could profile well as a reliever. His velocity would play well too. As MGL pointed out earlier this year, pitchers tend to gain 1.5-2 mph when converting back to the bullpen, and that bears out in Liriano’s small sample this season. As a starter, he has averaged 92.7 mph on his fastball, and as a reliever, he has averaged 94.1 mph. Perhaps he would gain even more velo if left in the role permanently, but the fact that he does see the bump you would expect is encouraging. Only five left-handed relievers — Aroldis Chapman, Rex Brothers, Jake McGee, Matt Thornton and Glen Perkins — are throwing harder this season than did Liriano in his brief bullpen stint.

It’s that last name though that has me questioning why you would want to mess with Liriano as a reliever. Why not just trade for Perkins? Perkins has built a strong rep in Minnesota, but with the Twins having Jared Burton waiting in the wings to take over late-game duties, Perkins should be just as available. He is also a better fit. For one thing, Perkins is used to being a reliever, as it’s been more than two years since he started a game. He doesn’t have a wide gulf in his platoon splits, while Liriano does, to the tune of a run and a half. And in general, Perkins has better control than does Liriano. Over the past two seasons, Perkins has walked two fewer batters per nine innings, while striking out nearly two more. And it’s not like Liriano’s control magically improved in his time in the ‘pen either.

Compounding the issue for potential suitors is that Minnesota doesn’t need to concern themselves with how other teams might use Liriano — they can comfortably value and market him as a starter, and therefore demand a starter’s asking price. There are very few sellers on the market — 11 of the 14 teams in the American League entered the All-Star break no more than 2.5 games out of a playoff spot, and while the National League is not that tightly clustered, most teams there are at least treading water as well. In other words, the Twins are going to have plenty of suitors for Liriano, should they choose to move him, and it would be a pretty inefficient use of resources to pay a starter’s price for him and then use him in relief, especially when the window of time in which you can use him is limited.

It would be foolish to draw on Liriano’s 9.2 innings of work in the bullpen the past two seasons and say he can’t succeed in the bullpen. Who knows, he could end up being the left-handed Dennis Eckersley. But that unknown is precisely the point. We have seen Liriano succeed for extended periods of time as a starter, and if you clicked the link for Jack Moore’s article in the intro, you know that the past month and change has been one of those times. We haven’t seen him do the same as a reliever. With so few teams definitively out of the playoff picture, buyers may need to get creative to satisfy their needs this month. But converting Liriano back to a relief role still may not be the best solution, particularly when a more proven relief commodity like Glen Perkins is on that same selling team.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

17 Responses to “Why Trade for Liriano and Use Him as a Reliever?”

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  1. NM says:

    I disagree with the idea that the Twins would want to trade Perkins…He just signed a somewhat long extension and is a local guy. Liriano has an expiring contract.

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  2. Zaaack says:

    If the Twins are only going to get trade offers for Liriano that value him as a reliever, they should hang onto him & re-sign him.

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  3. Fatbot says:

    Sheesh, the “left-handed Eckersley” now? Amazing how Liriano continues to be ridiculously hyped by people who should know better. Every other Fangraphs article is all about advanced stats like WAR, wOBA, FIP, etc… But apparently when it comes to certain nerd pets like Liriano, all those stats are not important?

    Face it, the guy had 16 good starts like 5 — no, 6 years ago — then has been mediocre to injured to awful. Get over him already!

    And as far as his little fluke success of late equating to “heating up?” FYI, here’s the leaderboard xFIP over the last 30 days: http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=2012&month=3&season1=2012&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&players=0&sort=17%2ca

    You’ll find Liriano at #73. Awesome, well worth at least 2 articles per week! Just don’t forget at least 5 articles about Wainwright and of course Bud Norris!

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    • Jim says:

      U mad bro?

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    • J6takish says:

      People write articles about him because he is a fascinating player. He has a boat load of talent but he happens to play for an organization with a completely asinine pitching philosophy. He is the ultimate what if, a change of scenery guy

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      • jirish says:

        ^ This.

        There was already a language barrier with Liriano. Then he had to always be asking, “You want me to do what?”

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    • mcbrown says:

      I think the “who knows” preceding the Eckersley reference makes it pretty clear in context that the author isn’t bullish on Liriano’s value from the bullpen… I think you should take a deep breath and re-read that paragraph.

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    • Zaaack says:

      I’d hardly call Liriano’s 2010 “mediocre.”

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  4. mcbrown says:

    I assume you mean “peak” soon, though with a player like Liriano, he is always at risk of piquing.

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  5. jpg says:

    “Perkins is used to being a reliever, as it’s been more than two years since he started a game. He doesn’t have a wide gulf in his platoon splits, while Liriano does, to the tune of a run and a half.”

    I dunno Paul, if he has a massive platoon split wouldn’t that make him a pefect LOOGY candidate? He has been an ineffective starting pitcher for the better part of 5 years. Making him a reliever, seems like a perfectly acceptable idea

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    • TFINY says:

      In 2010 he had 6.0 WAR and a FIP- of 64 (xFIP- of 70). That is very dominant, and that potential probably means that it is not worth making him a full time reliever.

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  6. gfor says:

    You mean peak, not pique.

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  7. gfor says:

    Unless you mean, “be piqued soon”.

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  8. I don’t know about Jared Burton waiting in the wings. He’s 2 full years older than Perkins, and has a history of arm issues. Not to mention he has a bit of a platoon split.

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      fair enough, should have double-checked burton’s age. but the bottom line is, the twins can either finish in last place with perkins or without him.

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      • monkey business says:

        You forget, the Twins can be 7 games back a few weeks out and still win the division. They are also getting very good attendance numbers. Start selling and they could lose that.

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  9. monkey business says:

    “As a starter, he has averaged 92.7 mph on his fastball, and as a reliever, he has averaged 94.1 mph.” Open up his pitch/fx. It’s basically he moves to the pen and then his fastball goes up to 94 then he gets moved back to starting and it stays at 94. If he got moved back to the pen you expect to see him throw 95.5 to 96 now?

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