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Francisco Liriano Teases Again

Francisco Liriano has been a tantalizing player over his career. Occasionally, he can look like one of the best pitchers in baseball. But most of the time, his performance fails to live up to his elite stuff. There’s been far more of the former version this year. Through 36 innings, Liriano has a 1.62 FIP. Liriano hasn’t thrown enough innings to be considered a “qualified” pitcher, but his strong FIP would rank first among starters. By now, we’ve seen enough about Liriano to know that, based on his career, this breakout is not guaranteed to continue. But Liriano has adopted an altered approach this season that may keep him from his usual roller coaster performance.

Liriano has stopped relying on his four-seam fastball this season. After using the pitch 26.23% of the time prior to this season, Liriano is throwing the pitch just 6.28% of the time in 2013, according to BrooksBaseball.net. He’s made up the difference by utilizing all of his other pitches more this season, and has adopted his sinker as his primary fastball offering. The trade-off has worked in his favor this year. Neither pitch is great, as both have been hit well entering the year. Batters owned a career .307 average and .491 slugging percentage off Liriano’s four-seamer prior to 2013. His .338 average and .501 slugging percentage with the two-seam fastball was equally as bad. That’s continued somewhat with the two-seamer this season, with batters hitting .347. But there are some advantages to the switch. The two-seamer has increased Liriano’s ground ball percentage by nearly six percent. It was also a slightly better pitch for garnering whiffs heading into the season.

It’s also helped cut his walks. Liriano’s four-seam fastball was called a ball 45.15% of the time entering the season. His sinker sat at just 38.21%. While Liriano’s walk rate isn’t at an all-time low, it’s dropped from 12.6% in 2012 to 9.2% this year. That’s still not ideal, but it is acceptable.

Throughout his career, Liriano’s off-speed pitches have been more efficient, particularly his slider. It’s somewhat of a double-edged sword for Liriano to throw his slider more often. While it’s clearly his best offering, there is a correlation between high slider usage and arm injuries. Liriano has always been a heavy-slider guy, but he’s using the pitch at a career-high 36.30% this season. That rate would put him in the top-5 among qualified starters. The change-up is being used primarily against right-handers, and it’s always limited them to a low slash line. Liriano does not use the change against lefties, using just the sinker and slider against them.

As usual, the bigger issue is whether this performance will continue. What’s promising is that luck hasn’t played a major role in Liriano’s success thus far. Though he has yet to give up a home run, something that won’t continue, he still has a strong 2.49 xFIP. He’s been lucky stranding runners, but that’s really the only area where regression seems imminent. The bigger concern is injuries. Liriano has been on the disabled list six times in his career. Each visit to the DL has been because of an arm issue. While many fantasy owners might be skeptical given Liriano’s past, it might be in your best interest to hold him until injuries take their toll again. With his new approach, there’s some reason to believe he’ll continue to be effective this year.