Reluctantly Talking Ourselves Into Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano‘s been kicking around the big leagues since 2005, and there’s really just never been middle ground with him. Here’s a fun trivia question: how many times has he had a seasonal ERA that starts with a four?

The answer: not even once. In parts of seven seasons headed into 2013, Liriano’s had an ERA in the five range four different times. Twice he’s been in the threes, and once, way back in that magical breakout of 2006, he finished the year at 2.16.

That makes him appealing because the talent is clearly there, but also an enormous risk, to the point where many fantasy owners just avoid him entirely. If he succeeds for someone else, the thinking goes, fine, but just as long as he doesn’t crater your team.

Based on his history, that’s not entirely unfair. Yet here we are, staring at a 25/6 K/BB and two earned runs in three starts as a Pittsburgh Pirate, and Liriano demands our attention once again. Proceed at your own risk.

While there’s only so much we can really take away from a three start sample — two of which came against the Mets & Brewers — we know enough about what Liriano is at this point to see what flavor of him we’re likely to get. ┬áReally, it’s never been about the strikeouts with him, because with the exception of two seasons, he’s always racked up the whiffs, and there were pretty clear reasons why he didn’t in each of those years. In 2008 and into 2009, he was recovering from the Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2007; in 2011, shoulder inflammation cost him two full miles per hour of velocity.

Liriano was healthier last season, split between the Twins & White Sox, and he posted a 13.2% swinging strike percentage that was second only to that great 2006 campaign. But he was still limited in value thanks to a 5.00 BB/9 and 1.09 HR/9, both metrics that sent that his ERA well over five.

So far in 2013, he’s yet to allow a homer and has managed to limit the walks to one every third inning, which is at least adequate. Again, I’m not willing to let three starts against varying competition count for more than a track record that dates back years, but there are a few reasons to consider buying low on Liriano.

For the first time in his career, Liriano gets the benefit of pitching in the National League. This is a pitcher who — if nothing else — always collected whiffs in the American League, and being able to skip the designated hitter to feast on weaker opposing pitchers should help keep that strikeout rate right in a nice spot. He also moves to PNC Park, and as Michael Barr noted in FanGraphs+, “PNC suppresses home runs by right-handed batters; that could come in particularly handy for Liriano since 18 of the 19 home runs he gave up last year were versus righties.”

Liriano’s velocity is back where it should be, and early returns are good. Don’t rush out the door to get him, because his inconsistency is well-known. But there’s definitely more upside here than someone like a Jose Quintana or Kevin Slowey, and if you can pick-and-choose his outings to avoid unfavorable matchups, you’ll likely be rewarded with a nice uptick in strikeouts.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

13 Responses to “Reluctantly Talking Ourselves Into Francisco Liriano”

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  1. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I happened to pick up Liriano to stream this week: I wouldn’t be surprised if he Liriano’d me at some point, but I think keeping him will be good. Hopefully he’ll keep going strong.

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  2. fantasysportshawk says:

    Good take. It’s a dangerous proposition, but I think the reward is there enough to outright the risk so long as you’re paying close attention to the opponent. You can’t fully predict when you might get Liriano’d, but he’s got a chance to contribute in 3 or 4 cats (walks are worrisome on the whip) so long as Pittsburgh stays hot.

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  3. Mike Petriello says:

    Loving the use of “Liriano’d” as a verb.

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  4. Carlos Llanez says:

    I was all over Francisco and added him before he came off the DL. I will go ahead and say it. He bounces back big time this year. Put me down a as a believer. I will even start him versus Detroit next week. Health is my only concern with him.

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  5. rotowizard says:

    If Liriano can maintain at least a half decent season, the Pirates are looking like they have a pretty good pitching staff for the first time in ages. Adding Cole to the equation makes the Bucco staff pretty deep with lots of upside.

    Burnett, Wandy, Liriano, Cole and an assortment of Jeff Locke, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and Jeanmar Gomez.

    Not bad.

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  6. Pat says:

    I scooped up Liriano as a stash and the returns have been good thus far. The big key with Liraino will be whether he can keep the walks in check as he will have the benefits of the NL and a favorable home park.

    I think another factor has to be the Pittsburgh coaching staff and its success with turning around A.J. Burnett.

    Anyone scooping up Liriano saw Burnett as the upside case and these first few starts point the meter in that direction.

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  7. Taz says:

    Been offered a pair of Liriano trades (I get Liriano in both):

    - Kuroda for Liriano

    - Gallardo+Gardner for Liriano+Bourn

    The second one is tempting… Upgrading from Gardner to Bourn could be worth it, especially if Gardner loses playing time.

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  8. wynams says:

    I too am a believer … mostly due to the bulk of Liriano’s 2013 income being incentivized (as opposed to guaranteed cash)!

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  9. Dancing Homer says:

    At this point, it’s more likely that Liriano is essentially an upside play rather than someone who could seriously “derail” your pitching staff. This was a guy who probably went undrafted in most mixed leagues. Unless you’re decimated by injury and Liriano is thrust into your #2 SP, you’ve got enough quality arms to hide his ERA/WHIP downside and/or can just cut him if he turns back into a pumpkin. He’s the 5th best pitcher on my staff, so I’m just sitting back and enjoying it while it lasts.

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  10. FeslenR says:

    I picked up Liriano a little while ago and I’ve been pleased so far. However, still early in the season, I’d like to see what he does against some real teams before getting too giddy.

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  11. dave says:

    i get all the times he’s burned fantasy owners. but there’s so much evidence that points to a breakout this season. velocity all the way back. NL switch. PNC Park. Great pitching coach. new delivery to have better control. and his career ratios vs NL teams vs AL teams before this season vs AL 4.58/1.39 with a 2.25 K/BB. and vs NL teams: 3.34/1.11 3.35 K/BB. fantasy owners and analysts were just too ignorant to see the possibility of Liriano breaking out this year. rightly or wrongly. the second i heard he was looking great in his rehab stints i picked him right up. and with the exceptions of @DET, @Coors, @arlington, @ Great American, @Miller Park, @Fenway, and @Chase. ill play him vs anyone anywhere. and he prob wont see DET again, nor will he see the Sox @ Fenway or the Rangers in Arlington. i’m all in on Liriano. and quick little trivia for semi-useless info. who are the only 2 pitchers in baseball this season to strike out Miguel Cabrera twice in a game?
    Answer is Garrett Richards and Liriano. think everyone can agree how difficult it is to do that.

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