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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.