FRANCISCO LIRIANO, LEFT HANDED PITCHER
|Born: October 26, 1983
Signed: International Free Agent, 2000 (Giants)
How Acquired: Minor League Free Agent
Country: Dominican Republic
Agent: Greg Genske
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|At the time he first joined the Pirates, Liriano had been one of the more erratic pitchers of recent years. He originally worked out for the Giants in the Dominican as an outfielder, but they quickly moved him to the mound. He established himself right away as one of the best left-handed pitching prospects in baseball, but missed most of his second full season with shoulder problems, an issue that’s recurred from time to time. Once he got healthy again, and after a trade to Minnesota, he quickly made it to the majors and was spectacular in the first season that he opened in the majors, only to have his season cut short by elbow problems that resulted in Tommy John surgery. In the next five seasons he pitched after that, he pitched pretty well in one, extremely well in one, and badly in three.
Liriano has always had outstanding stuff, although his fastball velocity has fluctuated from roughly 95 on average before the surgery to anywhere from slightly below 91 to a little below 94 since then. He also has a good change and one of the game’s best sliders. His control has fluctuated even more wildly than his velocity. He has a career-long pattern of having much better xFIP numbers than ERAs. Normally, this would indicate that a pitcher has had some bad luck or been undermined by a bad defense. The disparity with Liriano, however, has been so large and so persistent that it’s hard to write off as bad luck. He’s generally been a groundball pitcher, although that also has fluctuated. He’s been deadly against left-handed batters during his career, holding them to an OPS of .580. Right-handed hitters have a .708 OPS against him.
In December 2012, the Pirates and Liriano agreed to a two-year deal worth $12.75M. Finalization of the deal, however, was delayed when the Pirates discovered that Liriano had suffered a broken humerus in his non-throwing arm that ultimately caused him to miss the beginning of 2013. In the end, the sides re-worked the deal as a rather complicated one that still potentially was worth $12.75M, including an option for 2014 that the Pirates exercised. Liriano became a free agent after the 2014 season, but the Pirates were able to re-sign him for three years and $39M. The Pirates traded him in a heavily criticized, salary-dump trade in 2016. He mostly scuffled for two-plus seasons after that with Toronto, Houston and Detroit, then signed a minor league deal with the Pirates for 2019.
Liriano put up impressive numbers in his debut, including high K rates. At this point he was sitting in the low 90s and reaching 96. Baseball America rated him the Giants’ 14th best prospect.
Liriano had another strong season in low A, but went out in late July with shoulder problems. His fastball velocity increased to 93-94 and he showed a good slider and change. BA ranked him as the Giants’ 4th best prospect.
Liriano made one disastrous start in the California League, then went out with continuing shoulder issues. He returned for four rehab starts in rookie ball at the end of the season. After the season, the Giants sent him, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski in a trade that turned out very badly for San Francisco.
Liriano split his time between high A and AA. He fanned a lot of hitters at both levels without walking an alarming number, but he had more hits allowed than innings pitched at both levels, which you wouldn’t expect with his stuff. BA was impressed enough with that stuff–a fastball that sat at 93-95, an outstanding change and a big curve–to rate him as the Twins’ 5th best prospect.
Liriano pitched well in AA and then dominated AAA, earning a September callup. In four starts and two relief appearances with the Twins, he pitched much better than his ERA, as the WHIP and K/9 show. BA rated him the best prospect in the Twins’ system and the Eastern League, and the second best (after Delmon Young) in the International League. His fastball was sitting at 94-96 and he’d returned to throwing a slider rather than a curve.
Liriano opened the season in the Minnesota bullpen, then moved to the rotation in late May. The results were spectacular, until he was sidelined in early August with elbow problems. He came back for one start in September, but ultimately had Tommy John surgery.
Liriano missed the entire season following Tommy John surgery.
Liriano made three starts in April and struggled badly, walking 13 in 10.1 IP. The Twins sent him to the minors and he pitched well in AAA. They brought him back up for 11 starts late in the year and he pitched very well in most of them.
Liriano struggled through the season, with his fastball averaging less than 92 mph after being close to 95 in 2005-06. He had a career-low groundball rate (40%), and had trouble both with walks and gopher balls. He allowed 21 of the latter, or 1.4 every nine innings. His xFIP of 4.48 did, however, suggest that he was hit with some bad luck.
Liriano turned things around with an outstanding season that got him some Cy Young votes. He cut his walks dramatically and his HR rate even more so, leading the majors by allowing just 0.4 per nine innings. His groundball rate jumped to 53% and his fastball velocity was back up close to 94. His xFIP of 2.95 suggests he pitched even better than his ERA indicates.
Liriano stumbled again due to control problems, despite throwing a no-hitter (with six walks) in May. His fastball velocity was back down by two mph from the previous year and his K rate hit a career low. He went out with a shoulder strain in late August and made no more starts, although he eventually made two relief appearances. Unlike other years, his xFIP (4.52) wasn’t substantially better than his ERA.
In some ways, Liriano had about the same season he did in 2011. His ERA and WHIP remained about the same and he continued to walk five batters per nine innings. There were, however, some positive signs as his velocity rebounded to 93 on average and he fanned well over a batter an inning. His groundball rate dropped, though, to a little under 44%. Once again, his xFIP (4.14) was far better than his ERA. The Twins sent him to the White Sox in a deadline deal; he put up more or less the same numbers for both teams.
Liriano missed the start of the season due to the broken arm. He went on a minor league rehab in mid-April and started his first game for the Pirates on May 11. He pitched well right from the start, showing much better command than he had in 2011-12. The Pirates have attributed the improvement to Liriano having the time during his rehab, to rework his delivery. Liriano’s fastball averaged about 93, just slightly below what it had been in his prime, and his change remained a very effective pitch. His slider, however was extraordinarily effective and he threw it over a third of the time. Liriano went 11-4, 2.16 in May through July. He slipped to 4-2, 3.62 in August and 1-2, 5.14 in September. His ERA those months was inflated by two games in which Clint Hurdle left him in to allow 17 total runs even though he clearly had nothing. (For some reason, Hurdle developed the habit late in the season of leaving starters in even after they clearly were struggling badly.) In the playoffs, he dominated Cincinnati in the wild card game and pitched decently in one start against St. Louis. Liriano’s command problems occasionally resurfaced, but the problems didn’t last.
For the season Liriano was absurdly tough on left-handed hitters, who managed only a pitiful 131/175/146 line against him, with just two extra base hits, both doubles. Even right-handed hitters had only a .689 OPS against him. He also had a big home/road split, going 8-1, 1.47 at PNC Park and 8-7, 4.33 on the road. He had the third highest groundball rate (50.5%) of his career.
Liriano had a rough season in some ways, but in the end he was once again the team’s most effective pitcher. His control went back into a down cycle, with his walk rate jumping by one, but he also struck out more and his groundball rate went up again to 54.4%. The control problems impacted Liriano more early in the year; he had a BB/9 of 5.0 and ERA of 4.72 in the first half, and 4.1 and 2.20 in the second half. He was out from mid-June to mid-July with a strained oblique. Oddly, he allowed an OPS of .740 to left-handed hitters and .622 to right-handed hitters. The latter resulted in large part due to improvement in his change. His poor W/L record resulted from the Pirates averaging only 3.4 runs in his starts, compared to 4.2 overall. He had streaks of six and seven games in which the Pirates failed to score more than three runs.
Liriano became a free agent after the season and, once Russell Martin signed with Toronto, he became the team’s top off-season priority. The Pirates probably helped their chances by extending a qualifying offer to Liriano, which meant that any team signing him would forfeit a draft pick. It was widely expected that the market for starting pitchers would see little movement until after Jon Lester signed, but instead the Pirates reached a deal with him before that happened. Liriano served as the team’s #2 starter, behind Gerrit Cole, and had a good season, staying healthy all year and tying his career high for starts while falling a little short of a career high for innings. He also set a career mark for strikeouts with 205, the ninth most ever by a Pirate pitcher. Liriano cut over a run off his walk rate and was tough on hitters on both sides of the plate, with lefties posting just a .592 OPS against him and righties .641. His groundball percentage remained good at 91.2%. The categorization of pitches at PitchFX can’t always be trusted, but if it’s correct Liriano has gradually reduced his usage of a four-seam fastball while he’s been with the Pirates, falling to a career low of 4% in 2015. The average velocity of the pitch, 92.4 MPH, remained very close to his career average of 92.6. Liriano threw his signature pitch, the slider, close to a third of the time, which is more or less a career constant. He did show signs of fatigue late in the year, posting a 4.94 ERA and August and 3.82 in Sept/Oct. This isn’t surprising given that it was the first time he’d pitched an entire season since 2012 and only the third time in his career. Oddly, Liriano suddenly started hitting well for a pitcher. He apparently puts on a show in batting practice, but had always looked completely disinterested at the plate until 2015, when got his first career extra base hits and drove in seven runs to lead the pitching staff. His first career HR was a three-run shot that served as the key blow in a 6-5 win.
Liriano struggled from the start, with walks being the main problem. Much of the trouble stemmed less from Liriano throwing fewer strikes than from hitters not chasing as many of his pitches. It also appears, from the data at brooksbaseball.net, that his slider lost movement. On August 1, the Pirates traded Liriano to Toronto for Drew Hutchison. Although the Pirates insisted that their real intention was to acquire Hutchison, he saw little time with them and was removed from the 40-man roster a year later. The real motivation obviously was Toronto’s willingness to take on the roughly $17M remaining of Liriano’s salary. The Pirates even threw in two fairly good prospects to get the money off their payroll. For whatever reasons, Liriano pitched much better the rest of the year.
Liriano went back to struggling with the Jays, and also missed a few weeks with shoulder inflammation. He continued to walk too many hitters and his ability to get swinging strikes dropped sharply, from 13-14% in his good years to just below 10%. Of course, his K rate went with it. Toronto sent him to Houston at the trade deadline and the Astros utilized him as a lefty specialist. In 20 games in relief, he struggled even more. He became a free agent after the season and signed a one-year contract with Detroit.
Liriano got off to a decent start with the Tigers, posting a 3.90 ERA in ten starts through the end of May. He missed much of June, though, with a hamstring injury and wasn’t the same after he returned. For the season, his velocity was down about two mph from the previous year, his walk rate remained bad and his K rate dropped further. He became a free agent after the season.
The Pirates signed Liriano to a minor league deal that called for a $1.8M salary if he made the team. He didn’t pitch well in camp, but he made the opening day roster anyway and pitched more games than any other reliever on the team except Richard Rodriguez. Liriano’s swinging strike percentage rebounded to earlier levels, but his K rate did not and his walk rate remained very high. He didn’t have the extreme gopher ball problems that many of the team’s pitchers had, allowing one every nine innings. He had a modest platoon split, holding left-handed hitters to a .659 OPS and right-handed hitters to .730. He probably didn’t pitch as well as his ERA indicates; his xFIP was 4.92.
Liriano will be a free agent in the off-season, but the Pirates may want to bring him back if he’ll sign cheaply enough. He’d probably be useful in a middle relief role, but with the team unable to develop pitching, they may need him in the late innings.
2014: $8,000,000 (team option)
|Signing Bonus: N/A
MiLB Debut: 2001
MLB Debut: 9/5/2005
MiLB FA Eligible: 2019
MLB FA Eligible: 2019
Rule 5 Eligible: Eligible
Added to 40-Man: 11/18/04 (since removed)
Options Remaining: 0
MLB Service Time: 12.104
|September 9, 2000: Signed as an international free agent with the San Francisco Giants.
November 14, 2003: Traded by the San Francisco Giants with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser to the Minnesota Twins for A.J. Pierzynski and cash.
November 18, 2004: Contract purchased by the Minnesota Twins.
July 28, 2012: Traded by the Minnesota Twins to the Chicago White Sox for Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez.
October 29, 2012: Became a free agent.
February 8, 2013: Signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
October 30, 2014: Became a free agent.
December 9, 2014: Signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
August 1, 2016: Traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates with Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire to the Toronto Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison.
July 31, 2017: Traded by the Toronto Blue Jays to the Houston Astros for Nori Aoki and Teoscar Hernandez.
November 2, 2017: Became a free agent.
February 23, 2018: Signed as a free agent by the Detroit Tigers.
October 29, 2018: Became a free agent.
February 4, 2019: Signed as a minor league free agent by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
March 28, 2019: Called up by the Pittsburgh Pirates.