The maddening Francisco Liriano: What to expect from the newest Pirates starter

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There hasn't been much news recently, and why Francisco Liriano is so tantalizing and yet so annoying is a compelling subject, so I spent much of the morning watching three of his starts, two of which I'll discuss here.

April 7 vs. Orioles: 4 IP, 4 K, 2 BB, 6 R. Liriano's fastball came in at 90-91 MPH, although he did occasionally dial it up to 93. His changeup, which he threw at around 84 MPH, is better than I'd remembered. (He also throws a slider that doesn't break a ton, but it's still probably his best pitch, since he can throw it hard, sometimes as hard as 88 MPH in the other starts I watched.)

Liriano gave up a solo homer to Adam Jones in the second on a pretty decent low fastball; that Jones managed to hit it out probably says more about Jones than it says about Liriano. Liriano then promptly gave up a four-pitch walk to Matt Wieters, however, and was all over the place against Mark Reynolds. (He struck Reynolds out, but that's not hard to do.)

In the third, Liriano gave up a leadoff single to Ronny Paulino. He then got behind in the count against Robert Andino and gave up a single, and Paulino came home when Josh Willingham bungled the play in left. Liriano again started 2-0 against Nolan Reimold, who ended up hitting a ground ball into the hole that Jamey Carroll couldn't make a play on. Later he got J.J. Hardy to ground into a double play.

Liriano tended to have problems with men on base. After a good first inning, his control faltered, and he often threw pitches early in counts that were nowhere near the zone. Liriano gave up three runs in a fourth inning in which he didn't get much help from Willingham or third baseman Danny Valencia.

Thoughts: For the season, opposing batters hit .235/.339/.360 against Liriano with the bases empty. They hit .248/.350/.446 with men on base. That partially explains the disparity between Liriano's 2012 xFIP (4.34) and ERA (5.34). Unfortunately, that disparity has been there for much of Liriano's career; it's possible it's not significant, but I'm not sure I'd bet on it. Throughout his career, Liriano has been much worse with men on base.

In this game, Liriano ran into problems when he got behind in counts with men on base. Also, Liriano's control is poor, so he probably won't do particularly well when his fastball is in the 90-91 range. Finally, while the Twins' defense wasn't horrible overall, it probably didn't do Liriano any favors, since many of the team's worst defenders (particularly WIllingham and third baseman Trevor Plouffe) were on the left side of the field. Liriano is left-handed and had fairly big L-R splits, so he dominated lefties last year but gave up a lot of hard-hit balls against righties. With the Pirates, having Starling Marte in the Pirates' spacious left field should help Liriano, and so should the fact that it's hard to hit the ball out of left field in PNC Park. (Liriano only gave up one homer against a lefty all year; he gave up 18 against righties.)

This was Liriano's first start of the year. After five more, the Twins booted him from the rotation. He returned to the rotation in late May and generally pitched better. Let's now look at one of Liriano's good starts. This one is from September 15, after he'd been traded to the White Sox. He's facing his former team.

September 15 vs. Twins: 7 IP, 9 K, 2 BB, 2 R, 1 H. As it turns out, the difference between this game and the Orioles game wasn't exactly rocket science. Liriano didn't allow many hits, partly because the Twins' lineup wasn't that great (Twins hitters frequently missed on pitches right down the pike) but mostly because he didn't get behind in counts. In the Orioles start, Liriano was constantly having to pitch in 2-0-type counts. For the season, hitters batted .303/.587/.471 after Liriano went to 2-0. (I'm not sure what the league average in that context, but the lesson is clear -- 2-0 counts are really bad for pitchers.) Liriano's stuff had a little more zip this time (his fastball was generally 92-94 MPH, with good movement), but that was less important than the fact that he threw strikes. The fact that the Twins rarely had runners on base probably helped.

When Liriano's stuff is at its best, he can be lethal -- it's hard to deal with a lefty who throws a good 88-MPH slider, especially when he pairs it with a 94-MPH fastball. Unfortunately, his stuff doesn't always look the same, probably due in part to injuries, and also to mechanical issues that are beyond my ability to figure out.

Obviously, though, his biggest problem is throwing strikes. He does have starts where he struggles significantly with his control and yet gets good results -- in early July, for example, he walked six batters against the Rangers but only allowed one run in 6.2 innings. That's a pretty tough line to walk, though, particularly given Liriano's problems with runners on base.

Overall, Liriano is a very frustrating pitcher. It's not impossible to imagine him pulling it together and striking out 200 batters next year, but it's also not impossible to imagine him struggling with his stuff and control and imploding.

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