The Uncomplicated Francisco Liriano

Many fantasy baseball players don’t readily like or even accept Francisco Liriano. He walks too many guys, a lot of them say, and he’s a major health risk. He’s unreliable and difficult to predict, they probably feel.

All those things are true, but probably not quite to the extent that some rotisserie and head-to-head owners believe them to be. Perhaps even before they had become less true since Liriano joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, but at least after that event. All those things have generally helped to depress his cost, even since that move, as well. That should remain true after a season in which he finished 71st among starting pitchers in Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings for the position and has rejoined the Bucs. That’s a good thing.

Liriano, 31, finished this past campaign with a 3.38 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, another K/9 above 9.00, but a ghastly 4.49 BB/9. He did that in pretty much the same amount of playing time this year (162 1/3 innings) as he did last year (161), when he placed 19th in Sr. Sanders’ list. Last year, he recorded a barely tidier ERA, but this year’s walk rate drove his WHIP from last year’s fantasy-helpful mark (1.22) to this year’s fantasy hurtful one (1.30). Oh, and in 2013, he received credit for 16 wins in his 26 starts, whereas, in 2014, he did for seven W’s in 29 outings. Wins earn significant money.

This isn’t segue to bash the win as individual statistic. It’s whatever. He at minimum earned more shots at W’s in 2013, when he averaged nearly 6 1/3 frames per start, as opposed to this year, when he fell a little short of 5 2/3 stanzas per outing. The rest of that ish just happens. Before the break in 2014, his results were bad (4.72 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 3.73 xFIP); after it this year, they were markedly better (2.20 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 3.11 xFIP). His fortunes were better, but he was also a little better (from 11.4 K-BB% to 15.8 K-BB%). The latter K-BB% was about where he was for the entire 2013 campaign.

What makes Liriano appealing, to me, is that he’s pretty simple. There’s isn’t much to think about – for me, and probably for him. He can get a lot of strikeouts and ground balls. He probably has to be only a little sharper to be a lot better. This is truer since he joined the Pirates, who worked with him on his release points and usage, among other things. He’s kind of either on or off. Pittsburgh has figured out how to keep him on a little more often.

Liriano really needs only those two things consistently to succeed. In his two campaigns in the ‘Burgh, his GB/FB has been around 2.00, about where it was in his great 2010. This past season, each of his four pitches coaxed grounders on more than 50% of balls in play against him. He just missed that threshold for all four pitches in 2013. His slider and changeup remain sick for swinging strikes, at around 20%. When he’s on, and even sometimes when he’s not, he puts hitters away.

Liriano has become pretty much all sinker-slider-changeup since he signed with the Bucs. His sinker and changeup have similar breaks but, of course, different speeds. His changeup and slider have similar speeds but, naturally, different breaks. (Incidentally, I think it’s neat that his slider can look like this and have such low numbers describe its average for breaks, like this.)

Those pitches also have all basically come from a similar arm slot, which wasn’t quite as true in the two years prior to his move to Pittsburgh. (In 2010, his release points were immaculately similarly. That hasn’t happened before or since.* Which may help to explain that glorious campaign. *That data isn’t available for 2005 and 2006.)

Jeff Sullivan broke down the essential difference-makers for this pitcher from the past two seasons in “The Pirates Version of Francisco Liriano.” It’s a fun read, as his usually are. Mr. Sullivan details Liriano’s noteworthy improvement and usage of his changeup. He also points out that the hurler has avoided arm injuries for a few years.

The southpaw keeps few secrets from hitters. He’s mostly sinker-slider to LHBs – sinker early most often, slider late most often. He’s sinker-changeup-slider to RHBs. Liriano still favors the sinker early and, something I find a bit interesting and which he’s always done, slider late. But it’s not quite as often. As Mr. Sullivan points out, the pitcher has done two things differently in the past two years: use the changeup more often, and deploy it in pretty much any count. This is consistently the death knell of RHHs versus the lefty. These things aren’t secrets, either, but they’re difficult to beat.

That’s another thing I like about Liriano. In his career, hitters have usually found it difficult to beat him. They basically hope that the lefty is off that day, he beats himself, and/or he’s injured and thus won’t take the hill. Mr. Sullivan puts it oh so well: “It’s not that Liriano can’t pitch in the strike zone; it’s that hitters haven’t forced him to.” Ray Searage and friends have helped him to beat himself less often in the past two years.

Liriano isn’t complicated. I see no reason to think that he can’t best his 2015 Steamer projection in ERA (3.59) and still deliver the kind of numbers that the rest of the projection foretell. I’d take double digits in W’s, a pretty good ERA, and plenty of strikeouts while he’s in there. He’s left-handed and still has good velocity. He could sustain a serious injury, given his rate of slider usage, but his survival to this point is kind of a positive.

But this is a probably a pitcher from whom fantasy owners will still generally shy away. He’s wild. He’s injury-prone. I’d prefer that they continue to think that way. Liriano should once again come at the cost of a mid- or late-round pick or single-digit dollar amount in mixed leagues. That mitigates risk, and all your pitchers at his likely price points come with greater risk. He’d be a nice supplement to a staff headed by Alex Cobb and a couple of other pseudo aces, I think.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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Unless I am playing in a deep league, I do not worry at all about injury risk beyond my 4th starter. If he gets hurt, I am willing to take the risk that I can find a good pitcher on the wire.