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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.