PITTSBURGH – Francisco Liriano took the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day yesterday, making the start for the third year in a row. Like the previous two years, Liriano was effective for the Pirates in his Opening Day assignment. Last year, he gave up two earned runs and struck out seven in seven innings. In 2014, Liriano struck out ten without allowing a run in six innings.
Yesterday, Liriano came north with his best stuff to begin the season to match his 2014 outing, going six innings and striking out ten batters without allowing a run.
As a healthy pitcher going north to begin the year, Liriano has set the mark of pitching 200 innings as his season long goal.
“As many as I can possibly get,” Liriano answered when I asked him if he had an inning goal for 2016. “At least 200 innings is my goal this year. I want to go deeper into games and give better innings.”
You have to go back to 2010 to get Liriano’s season high in innings, when he went 191.2 innings while posting a 3.62 ERA for the Twins. During his time with the Pirates, he has been fairly consistent in his innings count, throwing 161.0 and 162.1 in 2013 and 2014, respectively, before going 186.2 last season.
Before his time with the Pirates, Liriano’s career was one marred by injuries. In the midst of an All-Star season in 2006, which had Liriano put up a 2.16 ERA (finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting), he was said to have felt some pain in his elbow but didn’t tell anyone about it right away. He threw four innings in August then tried to pitch again in September that year, only to be pulled after two innings.
When Liriano decided to try to fight through the pain, he essentially wrote himself a script for Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in November that same year. Following his return from Tommy John in 2008, the injury bug didn’t seem to leave Liriano alone, with a list of injuries from left forearm swelling, arm fatigue, shoulder inflammation, and the list goes on (Baseball Prospectus).
In the winter of 2012, the Pirates decided to take a chance on the injury-prone, yet extremely talented, left-hander. With a 5.23 ERA over the prior two seasons for the Twins and White Sox, Liriano signed a two-year deal with the Pirates, only to have the contract voided after breaking a bone in his non-throwing arm.
After renegotiated a contract, Liriano was only guaranteed $1 million for one year (with a club option for 2014) from the Pirates because of the injury. The rest has been history for Frankie…
Liriano was named the Comeback Player of the Year in 2013 after a 3.02 ERA with the Pirates. He struggled in the first half of 2014 before going down with an abdomen strain in June, but returned to his dominant form again after the 2014 All Star break with a 2.20 ERA in 14 games. In 2015, he was the measure of consistency for the Pirates starting rotation.
Liriano said that he has worked even harder this offseason to improve his conditioning in the hope of pitching more innings in 2016, and he rested his arm a little more than usual.
“I’m trying to stay ahead of everything workout-wise,” Liriano said. “This past offseason, I didn’t throw as much as I used to throw. I’m just trying to find ways to take better care of my body and stay healthy. Just do the little things and get to know my body better.”
The hope is that Chris Johnson, the director of performance who came to the Pirates from Golden State last year, can help Liriano transform and continue to find the proper ways to rest and condition to get the most out of his body this year.
“I just want to try to get to know my body better and do the little things to stay healthy and recover better,” said Liriano.
He noted that he would like to find ways to get more batters out in three pitches or less, as well. The problem that obviously gets raised with all of Liriano’s goals this year is that he not your typical “three pitches or less” kind of guy. Liriano is one of the most effective pitchers in recording outs while staying outside of the strike zone.
According to FanGraphs, Liriano had the lowest zone % (pitches thrown within the strike zone) on record in 2014 (35.0%, among qualified starters). In 2015, he almost matched that number at 36.2%; yet, Liriano had a 3.38 ERA, 3.16 xFIP, and 3.6 WAR.
“Liriano has become the most extreme ball-thrower in the history of plate-discipline data. Batters have actually been chasing more at his increased offerings outside the strike zone. . . The league’s inability to lay off these unhittable offerings outside the zone has given Liriano no incentive to start putting anything over the plate.”
In layman’s terms, Liriano has built his professional career on being able to get batters out while staying out of the strike zone. Last year, he had the 7th highest BB% among qualifying pitchers in the majors, and he was 10th in K%. He is going to walk batters, but he is also going to strike batters out on a regular basis. His Opening Day start is the perfect example of this situation, where Liriano struck ten batters yet walked five. So the question has to be answered: Is it more important to get more innings or a substantial amount of quality innings for Liriano?
“I like innings that are quality,” Clint Hurdle said after Liriano’s Opening Day start. “200 innings is a nice number if they are quality innings. He’s been a bull with the ball out there. He loves to compete. We’ll see where it goes if he can stay healthy.”
Numbers aside, everyone agrees that finding rest and conditioning properly during the season is most important to be able to accomplish these goals.
“I do think he’s realized the importance of rest during the season,” Hurdle said. “We were able to hit the pause button for him last season during the second half, and I think it played out really well for him. He’s matured along those lines. He doesn’t get caught up in those routines of having to take the ball every fifth day. Sometimes you have to put the ball away. We’ll see where it goes.”
If Liriano’s Opening Day start was any indication of what lies ahead in 2016, I think the Pirates would gladly accept six or seven innings on a regular basis if it meant a high strikeout number and an above average ground ball rate. 200 innings or not.