First Pitch: Has Liriano Passed Burnett As the Staff Ace?

Liriano is the guy you want to give the ball to in a big game. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Liriano is the guy you want to give the ball to in a big game. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

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.

**Stopper Liriano Pitches Seven Scoreless in 5-2 Pirates Win.

**Pirates Notebook Exclusive: Jeff Locke “Stands Behind” Lack of Trades.

**Prospect Watch: Heredia Overcomes Control Issues, Dickerson Homers.

**Minor League Schedule: Pimentel, Holmes and Kingham Set For Sunday.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Pick Up Two Wins With Strong Starting Pitching.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/112402176672885120423 Alex Henry

    Great article, they mentioned this on the telecast tonight and i was thinking about it then you had an article. AS for my view i believe the numbers for Liriano are grea,t and he most liking wont win the Cy Young unless Kershaw goes threw a rough patch highly unlikely or he is injured. At any rate few if any expected him to do well this year especially after the injured non throwing arm to be in the discussion is great and has been a key part to this years success. Although i would still go to Burnett its not as if he has struggled he has an above average ERA at 2.86 so its not as if hes having an off year just hes over personality and team first mentality not saying as if Liriano isnt this way i just feel Burnett is a vocal team leader and is the face of the staff and i feel he would thrive in the wild card play in if we have to play in it. But as you said it is a terrific problem to have either of them are great options.

    • MikeZumpano

      That might be the longest sentence I ever read…..

  • https://profiles.google.com/103770536589125998209 Michael Jackson

    Maybe a better question is are we witnessing the best Pirates rotation top to bottom since the 1909 World Champions.

    And more importantly, are we going to be able to keep it together for next year.

    • http://www.facebook.com/matt.beam.16 Matt Beam

      that depends on AJ, I wouldn’t break the bank but I think the Pirates should seriously consider offering him in the 2 yrs/$20MM range. I wouldn’t go 3 yrs and/or $15MM/yr

      • BostonsCommon

        It’s going to be up to AJ and if he wants to stay, or not, or even retire. The fire is definitely there, and with a playoff run on the horizon I think you can probably rule out retirement.

        He’s probably going to end up at least a 3 WAR pitcher this year, and I’m sure if he signs another contract hell expect to be paid accordingly. The Pirates can’t afford to pay retail WAR prices for premium talent though, which is why their current contracts with Liriano, AJ, and Cutch are so important.

        With Lirano and Wandy and Morton all at reasonable numbers next year, and Cole and Locke at League min, how high would the Bucs offer? Backload a two year $20-$25m deal, knowing Liriano and Wandy are both off the books in ’15? I think if Wandy opts for FA it would make it much more reasonable to bring AJ back.

        • emjayinTN

          BC: I agree, but I have a question on WAR – for 2012 Baseball Reference had Burnett as a 2.2 WAR and Fangraphs had him as a 3.0 WAR – what am I missing? Burnett has been making $16 mil/yr which was supposed to be his last big money contract. With Liriano, Locke, Cole, and probably Rodriguez, would you want to go 2 years for Burnett or get ready for Taillon to be at PNC by Jun 2014? I like a one year for $10 – $12 & possibly an option,

          • Andrew

            Fangraphs uses FIP in their WAR calculations, Baseball Reference uses actual runs allowed and adjusts for other factors, defense, opponent and parks.

  • brilemon

    Although irrelevant, I wonder what AJs reaction would be. I know he’d want the pill.
    I’d like to think he’d take the high road if he was sidelined in a one gamer, but this has clearly been “his” team since last year.

    • Ron Zorn

      Has to be AJ, for the simple reason you stated. From a state of mind and leader in the clubhouse, have to give the ball to AJ, assuming rotation falls this way and/or we have the luxury of setting the rotation for the playoffs. There isn’t a wrong answer from a performance perspective, but if AJ is the leader, you have to give him the ball for a one game playoff. And if that works out, you have Liriano for the opener of the first playoff series.

      • Kevin_Young

        A “Leader” gladly let’s the best pitcher pitch. Anything else is just selfish

  • emjayinTN

    OK Tim, a timely article and I would not want to say anything that would be derogatory to Liriano, but I do think that AJ Burnett could have a few points to make. First he has pitched in 7 Playoff Games in 2009, 2010, and 2011 with a 2-2 record. Francisco Liriano has pitched in 2 playoff series in 2009 and 2010 and is 0-2. For the record, Wandy Rodriguez has also pitched in the playoffs in 05 and 06, and is 0-1. Therefore, experience and record in Playoff Games to Burnett. Liriano has been lights out, and Burnett has only been Excellent. Since his time on the DL (leg) he pitched two “rehab” games for the Pirates and did well. In his 3 starts afterward he has thrown 19.2 innings, given up 22 hits, but has struck out 22 while walking only 6, and has a 1.83 ERA over those 3 games. Still lots of starts left in the remaining 52 games, and for the Pirates sake, I hope they both continue to make this a toss-up by pitching well. BTW, kudo’s to you for finding a way in an article about our best pitchers to mention that Morton deserves to be in the Rotation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    AJ is 1A and Frankie 1B

    And, yes, we need to try to sign AJ this offseason. He is showing NO signs of slowing down.

    Foo

    • Ron Zorn

      2 for $20M is fair, and if he wants to stay, he should be fine with this salary.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.ransom.5 Jeremy Ransom

        I wonder if we can sign AJ, AND extend Liriano. It’d be nice to keep Frankie around for 3-4 years.

        • BostonsCommon

          The best time to sign Liriano was last year, when his value was low and he had something to prove. Turned out to be a brilliant move by NH.

          Now is not the time to extend him, now that his value has sky rocketed again. You can probably take the same approach that CalFan mentioned below, and if he’s still looking sting after next season, extend him a 1 year qualifying offer.

  • CalipariFan506

    Just give AJ a qualifying offer. 1 year 13+M. We either get him back at what is around his worth or he goes elsewhere and we get a draft pick.

    • BostonsCommon

      +1. i actually like this idea a lot. AJ might too. Maybe he doesn’t want to commit to more than 1 year at this point in his career.

    • Y2JGQ2

      Agreed Caliparifan- don’t let a pick get away, and one year at 13m won’t hurt us in getting back to the playoffs next year. Most likely Karstens and Garrett will be gone and without taking on any extra money via dumb trades at the deadline, we have flexibility to bring AJ and Wandy back if wandy takes the player option. It wouldn’t hurt anyone to give Taillon another full year of development. and have him as the first depth option from AAA.

    • smurph

      I believe Burnett loves being with the Pirates. I don’t think you need to worry about him going to another team. Not going to happen. He wants to win a WS and his best chance is probably with the Pirates (hard to believe I just said that). It wouldn’t really be about money either, since he has more than he will ever spend. Two years @ 10 million per would likely work, or maybe he just signs for one year.

  • CalipariFan506

    Jones is the toughest decision of the offseason. You’d feel like you were wasting an asset with a non tender, but he clearly is not worth a pay raise to the $6M range with his .725 OPS against only righties. Maybe we could work out a trade for a relief pitcher reconstruction project. NH is great at identifying guys like that.

    But then you have the issue of who replaces him. Lambo would have about 250 AAA at bats, NH has spoken about preferring guys get over 500 AAA at bats before he is ready to promote them. He cited this last season when delaying Marte and then even said he would have preferred to keep him in AAA longer. Lambo has a high K rate and would be a HUGE risk to pencil into a majority platoon role IMO.

    Dickerson is a non prospect in my eyes. He doesn’t have the power or speed to compensate for his low walk rate.

    • BostonsCommon

      Wonder if he be willing to do something like 2 years $8-$9M. At that price he’s still an affordable platoon player, and garuntees him more cash. Seems unlikely though.

  • moose7195

    I think Burnett saw what you wrote. Lol, he just might have answered your question for you with his performance today.

  • smurph

    I have been saying all along that Liriano is the ace of this staff. His dominance and consistency prove it. I agree that the starter in their first post-season game boils down to Liriano or AJ. It is a decision that doesn’t have to be made now. Who is pitching better the last week of September? What are the metrics of your opponent? Do they hit lefties better or righties?
    Now that the division is a possibility, you really want to try to avoid that wildcard, single-elimination game. IF the Pirates win the Central, they will likely face either the Dodgers or the WC winner. Braves are really hot now, but I don’t think there is an easy opponent among the top 5 teams. If you are forced to play the WC game, there is a 50-50chance you are one-and-done. Even if you win that game, you are now at a disadvantage in the divisional round, as your #2 starter goes against the opponent’s #1. Your #3 against their #2.