Francisco Liriano made $1 million for the Pittsburgh Pirates this year in base salary. He can earn up to $3.75 million more based on incentives he almost surely hit, but the fact remains that the Pirates paid less than the price of a win for a three-win pitcher.
In purely economic terms, he was one of the most valuable contracts in baseball, especially if rookie deals are excluded.
He also provided a massive value for fantasy owners who were risk-seeking enough to enlist his services late in drafts or early in the year on the waiver wire.
Liriano was drafted 383rd based on ADP, so essentially he went undrafted in all but the deepest of leagues. He finished the season as the 71st most valuable player, trailing only Josh Donaldson in value among those that went largely undrafted.
The reason Liriano went so late or completely undrafted can be summed up in a word: risk. (Well, injury concerns, too, since he didn’t make his first start until May 11, but many owners stash injured players for a month without a second thought.)
A sad walk down memory lane
In 2006, Liriano broke on the scene with an incredible rookie season (30.4 K%, 6.8 BB%, 2.16 ERA, 2.55 FIP). His ADP would have been very expectant had Tommy John surgery not derailed his 2007.
In 2008, expectations were high but muted by the recovery process. Liriano put up an adequate 76-inning stretch (20.4 K%, 9.7 BB%, 3.91 ERA, 3.87 FIP); heading into 2009, the thinking was that a year removed from surgery, his 2006 version could return.
And then came the 5.80 ERA, 4.87 FIP and spike in walk and home run rates.
There was major trepidation for 2010, and Liriano hooked owners back in with a jump in K-rate, drop in walk and home run rates, and a 3.62 ERA with 2.66 FIP.
High expectations in 2011? Meet a 5.09 ERA and 4.54 FIP without the strikeouts and with a ballooned walk rate.
At this point, any owner would have been forgiven for completely giving up on this season-by-season roller coaster. When 2012 was once again poor in the bottom line (although with a 4.34 FIP underneath), it was difficult to make a case for Liriano without a massive caveat about being ready to pull the chute early on if he struggled.
The signs, or the red herrings?
So again, 250 words and six seasons proving exactly why you shouldn’t have drafted Liriano.
But in retrospect, the 2012 peripheral stats gave us a hint, and the strikeout rate was back with an excellent swinging strike rate backing it up. He also moved to the National League in a park that suppressed home runs for right-handed hitters (Liriano is a lefty with platoon splits).
There was a case to be made, so once he started with three excellent outings (and strong ones in five of his first six without a blow up), he should have been an obvious add-until-burnt. But he only finished the year at a 78% ownership tag in Yahoo and ESPN, partially owing to skepticism and very thin leagues and owner attrition.
But someone should have (#shouldof) owned him in your league, and if they did they got a top-20 starter (or SP2) basically for free.
A 3.02 ERA, a 2.92 FIP, a 24.5 percent strikeout rate with 16 wins and 163 strikeouts in the aggregate. For what it matters, that’s the 26th most value from a starter’s ERA, the seventh most value based on wins and the 35th most value based on strikeouts. He helped across the board, and his 1.22 WHIP hardly hurt.
You’ve gotta ask yourself a question
Now, what do we make of Liriano for 2014? It requires further study, of course, but there aren’t many signs pointing in the wrong direction, other than the fact that he’s burned us all before (fool me once…).
Strikeouts, ground ball rate, velocity. It all looks good, and it’s difficult to imagine players suddenly just adjusting to that nasty slider. If he can keep the walk rate in check, there’s no great argument for regression to his 2011-12 self.
But it’s Francisco Liriano, and we’ve been here before. Someone’s going to pay a top-100 price, but it’s going to take a lot of studying and some deep introspection about what type of fantasy owner I am before I make the plunge with an expectant price.
As a final note, I’m pretty sure Katy Perry was a jilted fantasy owner when she wrote Hot N Cold, singing specifically about Liriano.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.