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December 26, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Leery of Liriano

by Ben Lindbergh

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PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed LHP Francisco Liriano to a two-year, $12.75 million deal. [12/21]

A couple weeks ago, while taking the Twins to task for signing Kevin Correia to a two-year, $10 million contract, I mentioned that the Pirates had tried to trade Correia at last year’s deadline, despite their interest in adding pitching. Now they’ve signed Liriano to a more lucrative contract that lasts just as long. Here’s one comparison of Correia and Liriano over the last two seasons that makes it look like the Pirates picked the wrong pitcher:

Kevin Correia: 325 IP, 4.49 ERA, 2.4 BB/9, 48.5 GB%, 43 days injured (oblique)
Francisco Liriano: 291 IP, 5.23 ERA, 5.0 BB/9, 46.1 GB%, 47 days injured (shoulder)

From 2011-12, Correia pitched more innings, allowed fewer runs per inning, walked fewer batters, got more grounders, and suffered less serious injuries. And yet the Pirates preferred Liriano. No wonder they’re always under .500!

Okay, I left a few statistics out:

Kevin Correia: 4.6 K/9, 90.3 mph avg. FB velo, 32 years old, right-handed
Francisco Liriano: 8.6 K/9, 92.2 mph avg. FB velo, 29 years old, left-handed

From 2011-12, Liriano struck out batters nearly twice as often as Correia and threw roughly two miles per hour harder, despite being left-handed. He’s also over three years younger. It's obvious why the Pirates would prefer Liriano!

All right, enough selective use of statistics. Here’s what the comparison looks like if we stop cherry-picking peripherals and look at overall defense-independent performance:

Kevin Correia: 4.64 FIP
Francisco Liriano: 4.43 FIP

From a defense-independent standpoint, Liriano has been a bit better overall recently. He’s also been much more dominant in the past, has superior stuff, and is significantly younger. If Kevin Correia is worth two years and $10 million on today’s market, then Francisco Liriano has to be worth $2-3 million more. Right?

Right. There’s just one catch: to believe Liriano is a bargain at two years and $12.75 million, you have to believe he’s the pitcher his FIP says he is, not the pitcher his ERA says he is. After 840 career innings, Liriano has a 4.40 ERA and a 3.75 FIP. Why the dramatic difference? With the bases empty, Liriano has held opponents to a .230/.312/.353 line, striking out 26 percent of the batters he’s faced. With men on, opponents have hit him to the tune of a .271/.347/.424 line and struck out in only 21 percent of their plate appearances. Whether the problem is primarily mental or primarily mechanical, Liriano simply hasn’t pitched as well out of the stretch as he has with a full wind-up. As a result, he strands fewer runners than he otherwise would.

Liriano is a better pickup for Pittsburgh than Correia was for the Twins, but unless the Pirates can fix his persistent sequencing issues—and remind him where the strike zone is—he’ll continue to be a disappointing pitcher whose stat line doesn’t match his stuff. 

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Francisco Liriano,  Era,  Pirates,  Peripherals,  FIP

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