Last Thursday, Francisco Liriano went out and pitched a gem, giving up two earned runs in 6.2 innings, but most importantly, striking out 13 and walking none.
It looked like the old Francisco Liriano was back. The Liriano that was statistically one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2013-2015. The pitcher that hasn’t shown up very often in 2016.
Unfortunately, that pitcher didn’t stick around long enough to show up again tonight. The lefty went 3.1 innings, giving up seven earned runs, with four walks and three strikeouts. It’s possible that Liriano could bounce back from this, and show what he showed last time out. But his recent history would suggest otherwise.
Liriano has largely struggled this year. He has just eight starts out of 20 with an ERA under 4.50. In a few of those starts, he’s gotten a bit lucky, working around some control issues. Most of his other starts haven’t gone so well. Half of his starts this year have led to a 5.40 ERA or worse. Only two of those starts could be considered unlucky, where he didn’t pitch as bad as the stat line, although he wasn’t good in those starts.
Prior to joining the Pirates, control was an issue for Liriano. It has been the biggest issue for him this year. He only has five starts with a BB/9 under 4.50. Two of those happened to be in July, but were wrapped around two other starts where he walked seven in 11 innings. Then there was tonight’s start. He also had a stretch in May when he walked just four batters in 14 innings over two starts. However, those were separated by a start with four walks in 4.2 innings, and followed by 29 walks in 36 innings over his next seven starts.
Liriano has seen a big drop in the effectiveness of his slider this year. The pitch went from getting a swinging strike 22.2% of the time last year to 16.6% of the time this year. He’s also getting fewer swings out of the zone, dropping from 44.3% to 37.8%. That’s a bad thing, since Liriano throws the slider out of the zone about two-thirds of the time. The reason for this all stems from him falling behind with the fastball, as Alan Saunders wrote about in tonight’s game recap.
Liriano has discussed at length the reasons that his fastball command sets everything else up for him. It allows him to work the slider in offensive counts and force hitters to swing at his frequently-out-of-the-zone breaking pitch. But when he isn’t getting ahead of hitters, it’s a lot easier for them to take a pass on the slider, and he ends up walking batters or finding too much of the plate in an attempt to avoid walking them.
Last night, I wrote about why the Pirates should be sellers. I focused a lot on the playoff odds, and the fact that the Pirates have some big question marks with their rotation. Liriano really tips the scales with that argument. If he’s a guy who can return to his 2013-2015 form, then he and Gerrit Cole give two starters who you can start twice in a playoff series. Or, you’ve got a Wild Card starter, and a guy you can start twice in the five game series. But if Liriano keeps pitching like he has been pitching, then you’ve got Cole and a group of question marks, with Cole being limited to one game in the division series if the Pirates make it past the Wild Card round.
If Liriano was his old self, then an argument that the Pirates were actual contenders right now would make a lot more sense. You might even be able to take the stance that he could get hot at the right time if he showed any kind of consistency from start to start. But the good outings we’ve seen from him this year have been the exception, and this version of Liriano isn’t a guy that gives you a lot of confidence in a playoff series.
So if you’re holding out hope that the Pirates can seriously contend this year, Liriano is the key. When he’s at his best, he’s a top of the rotation guy. And while it seems far fetched that he will return to his best, there’s no one else in the rotation, outside of Cole, who can match his potential upside this year. That means the Pirates have to stick with him, hope they can make the playoffs without him, and hope he gets fixed in time for the playoffs.
**Liriano’s Struggles and a Lack of Timely Hitting Lead to a Pirates Loss. The game story tonight from Alan Saunders.
**Prospect Watch: Williams Gets Knocked Out of Tuesday’s Game Early. A good report on Clay Holmes from Sean McCool in the live Altoona recap.
**Pirates Notes: Preparing For Felix Hernandez and Why Josh Bell Isn’t in Pittsburgh. Some pre-game notes on Josh Bell and the upcoming rotation.
**Eric Fryer Reinstated from Paternity List, Diaz Optioned to Indianapolis. The stay in the majors was short lived for Diaz, although I expect him to return in September.