Tonight Francisco Liriano was the stopper for the Pirates, preventing them from slipping to a three game losing streak, and allowing the team to pick up a win on the same night that the second place St. Louis Cardinals lost. Liriano has been extremely reliable all season, and has been one of the best free agent signings this year. There are debates starting asking whether he should draw Cy Young consideration, although that award is most certainly going to Clayton Kershaw.
There is one significant role that Liriano could have going forward: playoff ace. The Pirates are almost certainly making the post-season this year. The question isn’t whether they will make it, but who they will be playing. They had a 99.3% chance of making the post-season earlier this week, but winning the division was more of a 50/50 toss-up.
If the Pirates win the division, then Liriano would be a great candidate to start the first game of the best of five division series. That could also allow him to come back and start game four of the series. But if the Pirates don’t win the division, they would be subjected to a one game Wild Card play-in. That would be a huge game, and one where you’d absolutely want your best starter on the mound.
Liriano is emerging as that guy this year. Looking at the current rotation, you can pretty much rule out Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton for any big games. Locke has great numbers this year, but it’s also his first full season in the majors, and you probably don’t want his inexperience in a big game. You could say the same about Cole, plus while he profiles as a future ace, he’s not there yet. Morton deserves to be in the rotation, but he’s an average starter and the Pirates have better options for a big game.
That leaves Liriano or A.J. Burnett. Both have great numbers this year, with Liriano posting a 2.02 ERA and Burnett putting up a 2.86 ERA. The advanced metrics back those up. Burnett has a 3.06 FIP, while Liriano has a 2.72 FIP. They’re both striking out a batter an inning, and both have mild control issues, with a 3.5 BB/9 ratio. They also induce a lot of ground balls, playing into the strong Pirates infield defense.
You can’t go wrong with either pitcher in a one game wild card matchup. In a best of five series, you could get four of the potential five starts from those two. In a best of seven series you could get five of the potential seven starts. Right now Liriano ranks 6th in the NL in FIP out of pitchers with 90+ innings, while Burnett ranks 15th on the list.
The one area where Liriano stands out above Burnett is his ability to dominate consistent in a start. David Manel of Bucs Dugout had this on Liriano’s game scores this year.
Francisco Liriano's game score, 74. His 8th "gem" in 16 starts. (Bill James' calls game scores over 65, gems.)
— David Manel (@DavidManel) August 4, 2013
It is also Liriano's 3rd gem in a row; 5th in his last 6 starts.
— David Manel (@DavidManel) August 4, 2013
Liriano has been great all year, with half of his starts going as “gems”. By comparison, Burnett has gems in 7 of 19 starts. The difference is that Liriano has been on fire lately. Burnett has been a good pitcher as well, but it’s hard to dominate like Liriano has been dominating recently. As long as that continues, Liriano should be the guy the Pirates give the ball to in big games.
Of course debating between Liriano and Burnett is a good problem to have, especially when you consider that a better way to describe their roles this year would be “Ace #1” and “Ace #2”. But if we’re splitting hairs, I’d definitely put Liriano in that #1 spot right now.
Links and Notes
**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 15: Recapping the Slow Deadline; The Pirates Are Legit Playoff Contenders.
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