Johan Santana was a cog in my home-league lineup back in the early 2000s, and following a 2004 in which he was a unanimous Cy Young selection, I had a pitching-staff anchor for the long haul. I did until 2006 anyway, when I fell head over heels for a younger, maybe-even-better Twins lefty who threw all the same pitches but harder. I traded Santana. I spent the summer months looking for a Twins bar in central North Carolina. 2006 was my least-favorite fantasy season ever.
Despite four promising starts to close 2005, the 22-year-old Liriano didn't even begin 2006 in the rotation, throwing 22 1/3 electric relief innings before starting his first game in mid-May. In 11 starts from that point through the end of July, Liriano struck out 10.2 hitters per nine innings to go with a 1.65 ERA and 0.85 WHIP. Johan was in the middle of his second Cy Young season but Liriano improbably overshadowed him.
Not even 10 years on, double-digit strikeouts per nine may not seem overly impressive, but there wasn't a single qualified pitcher that averaged 10 or more in 2006 and only three (Peavy, Johan, El Duque) punched out more than one batter per inning. In 2015, there are eight qualified starters who are in double digits and another nine that strike out more than one per inning. Similarly, there were two pitchers whose ERAs lied south of 3.00 in 2005 (Johan, Oswalt) against 27 this year. Liriano's innings total came up well short of qualifying, but pitching to that kind of ERA—even in a shorter sample—is something that just didn't happen very often a decade ago.
In early August, something else occurred that was rarer in 2006 than it is today: Liriano's elbow went boom. Even if I knew what an ulnar collateral ligament was, I certainly hadn't experienced the torment of having a guy who I relied on for giddiness every fifth day have his future suddenly thrown into limbo. Tommy John surgery is pretty routine these days. Jose Fernandez can have the surgery and come back one year later throwing 97 mph darts and backdooring curveballs like he never missed a start. Even for other, more-normal human beings, we expect 12-month recovery times. All of this was less clear (at least to me) as Liriano recovered in 2007. The future appeared even murkier when he got bombed in his first three major-league outings of 2008. Liriano was sent down and spent most of the year in Triple-A before appearing to right the ship with a 2.74 ERA and 8.22 K/9 in 11 August and September starts.
2010 was the lone bright spot in a four-year stretch from 2009-2012, in which Liriano finished with an ERA above 5.00 three times and was dinged up enough that he averaged only 155 innings per season. He was one of the very worst pitchers in MLB in 2009, but damn if I didn’t get sucked back in every time he gave me a chance. Liriano struck out nine in seven innings against Miggy and Magglio? Buy, buy, buy! (He gave up five or more earned in three of the next four.) His velocity is back in 2010, and so are the strikeouts! (Haha, just kidding. It’s 2011 now and Liriano can’t stop allowing runs long enough to strike anyone out.)
I’d had enough. I was embarrassed for myself. Liriano just couldn’t be part of my portfolio again. I was a jilted lover.
The Pirates scooped Liriano up for a million bucks prior to the 2013 season and he got his career back on track under Ray Searage, as so many pitchers have recently. Two-and-a-half years later and in the middle of arguably his finest season since the 2006 masterpiece, it's nigh on time for me to leave all the history behind and appreciate what Liriano is accomplishing in the present.
Liriano’s story in 2015 is not altogether different than the rest of his tenure in Pittsburgh. The pitch mix is more or less the same; he’s throwing a few more sinkers at the expense of his changeup, but the redistribution is minor. His approach isn’t particularly elegant. If you’re a lefty, Liriano’s coming after you with that sinker, and when he gets ahead of you, he’s gonna sit you down with the slider. Same deal against righties, except that he mixes in a changeup that has helped him equalize (reverse, even) a platoon split that prevailed during his Twins days.
Liriano’s sinker velocity is off just a touch but the changeup is a full mile per hour slower than it was last year and two slower than 2013. The slider is off two mph from 2013 also, though most of that was given back last season. Maybe the velocity separation helps explain his mild 2015 improvement? Hitters aren’t swinging any more than they always have, but he’s getting more whiffs per swing on his slider than he ever has, and the 45.2 percent mark trails only Chris Heston (yes, Chris Heston) and Carlos Carrasco. Similarly, his changeup remains a top five offspeed pitch by whiffs-per-swing, even though it’s not quite as good as it was a season ago.
Those numbers are impressive in a league-wide context, but where Liriano has made the biggest gains relative to his own previous performance is in the quality of contact against. According to Baseball Info Solutions data, Liriano’s 24.8 percent rate of soft contact leads all qualified pitchers by a full four percentage points. It’s also four percentage points better than Liriano’s own 2014 mark, itself a league leader. This data is backed up by batted ball exit velocity. When I wrote a couple weeks ago about batted ball velocity for pitchers, Liriano’s was the third-lowest in the major leagues, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale.
Against all odds, the things driving Liriano’s career year are consistency and health. Liriano has started 18 games this season and 14 of them qualify as quality starts. In those 14, he struck out fewer than six batters only three times. Of the four that weren’t quality starts, only one was truly horrific, a two-inning appearance against the Twins in which he gave up seven earned runs.
Liriano’s value has been further enhanced by his ability to pitch deeper into games. He’s always going to be a guy who runs up pitch counts earlier than his peers, but he’s gone seven or more innings eight times already this year, bettering last year’s total by one. His 6.4 innings-per-start clip in 2015 is nearly a full inning longer than he averaged in 2014. Thanks to that increase and full health, Liriano is sitting on 114 2/3 innings pitched at the All-Star break. As good as he’s been in Pittsburgh, his value has been capped by the fact that he’s missed time in each season. Last year’s total of 162 1/3 innings was his highest since 2010’s career high of 191.2.
There’s no reason to believe that the things he can control are going to change materially over the remainder of the season. Liriano’s DRA- of 63 slots him in as the 13th-best pitcher in the majors to date, and cFIP also likes him as the 13th-best pitcher from a skills standpoint. According to ESPN’s Player Rater, Liriano has been the 17th-best fantasy starting pitcher this season. That he has been able to achieve SP2 status while only tallying five wins is impressive. I’m not in the business of projecting win totals but I do like Liriano’s chances of eclipsing that mark in the season’s second half.
The sting of 2006 has stayed with me, and I missed two-and-a-half seasons of excellence because I was afraid to make a mistake I’d made enough times already. I closed the book on Liriano. “He can’t throw enough strikes,” I told myself. “He’ll get hurt any day now.” “It doesn’t matter what he did today; he’ll get shelled tomorrow.”
While I was busy being emo, I missed Franciso Liriano become what he was destined to be: one of the best pitchers in the major leagues and someone who you can count on for four-category production. If you made the same mistake—and I know there are plenty of you out there, because you’re human, too—it’s time for forgiveness.
(Don’t do it to us, Francisco. Not this time.)
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