Bold Prediction: Francisco Liriano is Top 10 Starter

We have a segment on the Fantasy Baseball Roundtable show called “Are You Crazy?”. The idea is to throw out a bold prediction and then the rest of the panelists debate whether the forecaster is crazy or not. We assume 20% as the baseline, meaning if there is a 20% chance of the prediction coming true, it is not crazy. On last night’s show, I stepped up to the plate and boldly predicted that Francisco Liriano would be a top 8 pitcher. However, for this post, I will be slightly less ballsy and go top 10. Now let me explain why there is at least a 20% chance of such insanity happening.

We know many things about Liriano. We know he has been injured quite a lot in his career. Between surgery that wiped out his entire 2007 season and the shoulder problems he endured last year, there always seems to be something up. We also know that when healthy, he can be utterly dominant and would fit into the discussion of the top pitchers in the game. In his rookie year in 2006, he displayed the holy grail of skill sets, striking out over 10 per nine, showing fantastic control and inducing gobs of ground balls. In 2010, the last time he was healthy, he posted similar peripherals, though slightly worse than the otherworldly numbers he put up in ’06. His 3.62 ERA didn’t show it, but he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League that year, as he led the league in SIERA with a 3.02 mark.

Okay, so we can pretty much agree than when health is on his side, Liriano is good. In 2008-2009 and 2011, when he was dealing with injuries, his strikeout rate was down, but the primary problem was a lack of control, an issue he had the toughest time with last year. So really, it all comes down to health.

So what makes me optimistic about his health heading into the year? First off, there have been absolutely no quotes, whispers or news of any sort that suggests he has any physical problems at the moment. His velocity during his start on Sunday was mostly around 92, while at times jumping to 94. Though this still seems down from his peak, it sounds more promising than his 91.8 mph average last year. You also must remember that it’s still early in spring training, so his velocity has more than enough time to continue creeping up.

Next, I stumbled across some interesting stats that really boosts my confidence. As we preach here at FanGraphs, spring training results mean very little, and it is best to ignore them. I do the same…for the most part. I still tend to look at a pitcher’s strikeout and walk rates as they can sometimes signal an impending breakout. This spring training, Liriano has been absolutely brilliant, as he has posted an 18/2 K/BB ratio in 13.0 innings. Given the tiny sample size and the unknown level of competition, I decided to look at Liriano’s past spring stats to see if they gave us a hint of things to come. And boy did they!

Year Spring K/9 Spring BB/9 Season K/9 Season BB/9 Season ERA
2011 11.1 4.3 7.5 5.0 5.09
2010 13.5 2.3 9.4 2.7 3.62
2009 8.9 4.0 8.0 4.3 5.80

As you can see, when he has struggled with his control during spring training, it was most certainly a hint that there was a problem and it was going to be a long year. In spring training 2010, he posted peripherals right on par with what he is doing right now, and he went on to have a fabulous season, only hurt by the Twins defense. Of course, we are still dealing with small samples and correlation does not equal causation. However, knowing what we know about his health history and given that the spring stats match up, it is hard not to assume there is a relationship here that is not random.

His career high in innings is just 191.2, so it might be difficult for him to pitch enough to generate the requisite value to finish in the top 10. That said, if his control has indeed returned and he doesn’t suffer from an inflated BABIP, he will be able to go 7, 8 and 9 innings and the whole inefficient, “tries to strike everyone out” baloney will fade away. I think it is well within reason to believe he can post a low 3.00 ERA, a sub-1.20 WHIP and over 200 strikeouts this year, which would most certainly be good enough to place him among the top 10 starting pitchers in baseball in fantasy value.

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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

21 Responses to “Bold Prediction: Francisco Liriano is Top 10 Starter”

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  1. IncarceratedBob says:

    Theymad huh?

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  2. MustBunique says:

    “His velocity during his start on Sunday was mostly around 92, while at times jumping to 94. Though this still seems down from his peak, it sounds more promising than his 91.8 mph average last year”

    92 is more promising than 91.8? That is bold, sir.

    I do like his spring numbers, though. If lack of control due to injury was truly his achillie’s heel in his off years I will buy on a good year in 2012.

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    • Yup. He was mostly around 92 on Sunday, getting up to 94, meaning he probably averaged in the mid to high 92 MPH range on Sunday when you factor in the 94s. Average 91.8 in 2011 means he was prob ranging from like 90-94. So now his low is a full 2 MPH over his low from last year.

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  3. Congo Hammer says:

    I’m hoping you’re right… but do you think he’ll have a better year than Darvish?

    I do think it’s worth noting that he played winter ball this year… not much, but something. He also did this in the 2010 season, so I had been watching him, hope nobody else is as optimistic as I am.

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    • To be honest, Darvish is such a wild card. I don’t have any unique insight on him. But his Japanese skills suggest it wouldn’t be shocking if he posted a sub-3.00 ERA, while his spring control struggles suggests that maybe he’ll be up and down all year and a mid to high 3.00 ERA is a better bet. No one really has a clue.

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      • dscottncc says:

        Darvish has been wild at times yes, but the fact remains he hasn’t been hit hard either. I don’t mind a guy walking a batter now and then if he can get himself out of jams via the strikeout or softly hit ball. I’m also pretty sure that he’s playing around with most of his pitches to get a feel for major league hitters and he’ll go from around 8 pitches in spring to 5 during the regular season.

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  4. Jeff says:

    What do Liriano’s spring numbers have to do with anything? He’s been facing non major league squads.

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    • Jason says:

      Yeah, who he faced had nothing to do with his problems last year. He was just bad. I’d be encouraged by him pitching well at any professional level.

      I’m not rushing out to grab him, but I’m not concerned that anyone else is either. He’s on my watch list.

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    • command, sir. It’s all about the command. There are a lot of “ifs” with Liriano, but few pitchers late in the draft have his kind of potential — even if it is 75% wishful thinking.

      Liriano is practically a late-round flier in most leagues, so he carries little risk as far as your draft selections go. I got him at pick 310 in my annual league. I had all of my pitchers selected, but I just couldn’t pass him up. That was before I saw this article.

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  5. Ender says:

    Since you put down a bold at the start I can’t complain with the opinion!

    I’m not seeing it though, he might be a good pitcher but too many IP downsides and that lineup isn’t going to be very good so the W will be tough to come by. I don’t buy that he can have good enough control to have an elite WHIP at this point so he really has to be amazing in K and ERA to reach top 10 status. I’d put the odds at less than 10% but greater than 0% so he is ahead of a lot of pitchers!

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  6. jsp2014 says:

    SSS but that table is eye-opening for sure.

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  7. jsp2014 says:

    so where do you have him ranked now? obviously you’re not taking him as a top 10 SP despite the bold prediction, but maybe early 30s?

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    • Not changing my rankings or projections right now. It’s still spring training and so I’ll need to see him in the regular season before making any decisions. But, I’m watching closely and ready to move him up.

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  8. I wish Fangraphs hosted an “intrade” type market so I could issue “Liriano is Top 10 in 2012, pay $100” securities for $20 a pop.

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  9. This Guy says:

    Any word on if he started throwing the two-seamer again? He if I recall he really tried to the lean on the four seamer and it killed him.

    The two seamer was massively successful in 2010 and he cut it down to 17% last year.

    Conditioning plus throwing the right pitches could lead to a huge steal at the draft this year.

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  10. Axis of Honor 25 says:

    Excellent prediction. I actually added him prior to reading this. I think his k/bb is 23:3 as of right now. That kind of ration always shows some kind of increase in velocity. And it looks like his slider is under control too.

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  11. Mark Himmelstein says:

    I’m digging what Liriano’s doing, but I’m not sure a low 3.00 ERA , 1.20 WHIP, and 200 Ks on a bad team is a top 10 starter any more. It’s a good starter, but Top 10? That was basically Matt Garza last year, who was very good, but there were a lot more than 10 starters who were better.

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  12. Bill says:

    Mr podhorzer: Any chance he bounces back now? I drafted him and he’s killing my stats. Can you give me your current opinion? I find it strange that he continues to rack up strike-outs, despite the overall performance. It. Strikes me he still has the pitches and this may be terrible command and a head case problem.

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    • Well I did pick him up a couple of weeks ago in the 2 remaining leagues I didn’t own him in just based on his ultimate upside. His strikeouts are way down though, check that K%. He’s simply a disaster right now and I don’t even think the Twins know what the problem is. But unless I absolutely need his roster spot to pick up someone else, I’m going to continue to hold until he loses his rotation spot or gets DL’ed.

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      • Bill says:

        Went back to local newspapers and it’s clear everyone thinks he’s getting his control back.

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