Francisco Liriano will be making his Pittsburgh Pirates debut today, going up against the New York Mets. The Pirates agreed to sign Liriano over the off-season to a two-year, $12.75 M deal. Shortly after the agreement, Liriano broke his right (non-throwing) arm. That delayed the signing, and eventually resulted in a re-structured deal where Liriano would only make $1 M guaranteed this year, plus extra money depending on when he would be added to the roster.
Liriano has gone through his rehab, and is coming to the Pirates at a perfect time. They recently released Jonathan Sanchez, and James McDonald is on the disabled list. Some injuries in Triple-A have depleted the starting pitching depth, and without Liriano the team would be left using one of their only healthy starters in Triple-A — Andy Oliver.
Not only does Liriano help the rotation from a timing standpoint, but he has the potential to provide a big boost to the rotation and be a key difference maker this year. He’s a wild card, with the potential to be anywhere from a number two to a number five starter for the Pirates. Below I will break down his rehab work, his history, and what he needs to do to provide the biggest impact to the Pirates.
The Rehab Starts
High-A: 1 GS, 3 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K, 0 HR
Double-A: 1 GS, 2.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 1 HR
Triple-A: 3 GS, 16 IP, 15 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 23 K, 1 HR
I covered Liriano’s first rehab start in high-A. His stuff looked great in that outing, with his four seam fastball sitting 93-94 MPH and featuring late arm side cutting movement. He threw a two-seamer which looked more like a sinker with its late drop off the table toward the plate. The two seamer sat in the upper 80s. He also threw a slider and a changeup, with both in the mid-80s.
You’d expect Liriano to dominate high-A hitters with that stuff. From all the reports I’ve heard, the stuff held up and led to some dominant numbers in three rehab starts in Triple-A. The most encouraging thing is the 23:1 K/BB ratio in 16 innings, with emphasis on the one walk. We’ll get to why that’s important in a bit.
Obviously the Double-A start stands out here. That was the one start where Liriano didn’t have his best control, and it ended up shortening his day. Again, we’ll get to the control in a bit.
The Major League History
It was only a few years ago that Liriano looked like one of the best left-handers in the game. In 2010, at the age of 26, he put up a 3.62 ERA in 191.2 innings, with a 9.4 K/9 and a 2.7 BB/9. In the last two years he has struggled, with a 5.23 ERA in 291 innings, along with an 8.6 K/9 and a 5.0 BB/9. The main source of the struggles has been his control. He had some control problems before that 2010 season, but the control wasn’t as bad as it was in 2011-12. Walking a batter every other inning won’t lead to success in the majors.
The Fit at PNC Park
When Liriano was signed, I wrote that he would be a great fit for PNC Park. In so many ways, this is a great situation for him to be in. First, he’s making the jump to the National League for the first time. I’m not sure how much the “NL is weaker than the AL” argument holds up now, but Liriano should at least have an advantage of going up against teams that haven’t seen him as much as American League teams.
As for the PNC Park factor, he’s a lefty with a career 9.1 K/9 ratio and a career 47.5% ground ball rate. A left-hander with a lot of strikeouts and a high ground ball rate is exactly what you want to have in PNC. A lefty pitcher takes away the short porch in right field from left-handed hitters. Left field is deep enough that it can forgive a few shots that would be homers elsewhere. And if you’re striking out a batter an inning, you’re going to be limiting the amount of balls in play in the first place.
The other fit is the defense. The Pirates have a good infield defense, which will help Liriano with his above-average ground ball rates. Liriano had a 4.14 xFIP last year, so his numbers could have been better, even with the control problems. He shouldn’t have those issues with the Pirates.
The Control Problems
I mentioned the big positive with Liriano’s rehab starts was the lack of walks in Triple-A. With the exception of that one Double-A start, Liriano showed good control. I did see him struggle with his control in an outing at Pirate City before his rehab work, so the problem can still come up from time to time. The problem that day was that he started to struggle, then started trying to over-power his pitches, leading to more throwing, less pitching, and bigger issues trying to maintain his control.
The control is going to be the key to Liriano’s success. He’s got an advantage by switching to a new league, playing in a favorable park, and playing in front of a strong defense. But walks are universal. If you have control problems, then a move to a new league or a new park won’t help. The defense behind you won’t matter.
Liriano has great stuff and a good situation. If he can cut down the walks, he could be a huge boost to the Pirates rotation over the next two seasons.