Who Would You Rather Draft: Francisco Liriano or Jonathan Sanchez

Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Sanchez have something to prove in 2012.

Both pitchers signed one-year deals on Tuesday, avoiding arbitration with the Twins and Royals at a cost of $5.5 million and $5.6 million, respectively. Both pitchers are in their last year of arbitration and would like to be much wealthier men than they are now this time next year. In order to do that, however, both pitchers need to prove that they are more than they showed in a disappointing 2011.

The good news for fantasy owners is that if Sanchez and/or Liriano is successful in recapturing some of his previous held promise, there is value to be had on draft day. Taking both pitchers and hoping one rebounds is doable in some scenarios — namely, leagues that typically have strong candidates on the wire throughout the season — but for the vast majority of players, that plan exposes them to an unreasonable amount of risk and it virtually guarantees a failure rate no lower than 50 percent. So, which talented, but enigmatic pitcher is going to be the better bet in 2012?

Since 2008, Sanchez has never struck out fewer than 22 percent of the hitters he’s faced and never walked fewer than 11 percent. His FIP has moved less than half a run, maxing out at 4.30 and hitting a low at 3.85; his xFIP has an even smaller range, from 4.36 to 3.94. This is to say, while his ERA has swung from 3.07 to 5.01 and his WHIP has moved 1.23 to 1.45, he has been pretty much the same pitcher during that time.

In a traditional 5X5, the trade-off is pretty clear: Strikeouts for WHIP, with ERA being the factor that swings Sanchez from “survivable” to “more trouble than he’s worth”. Moving to AL isn’t going to help him tip the scales in the right direction, and I don’t see him challenging for 20 wins with this year’s Royals team — though they may be a surprisingly strong contender in a weakened AL Central. While not getting to face opposing pitchers anymore will hurt his strikeout numbers some, his upside is still there; his downside will be somewhat determined by Kansas City’s defense. Unfortunately, KC was one of the 10 worst defenses in baseball last year via plus/minus and no better than average by almost any measure. Still, while the move to KC won’t help him, Sanchez is going to be more or less they same pitcher he has been since coming into the majors.

Liriano, on the other hand, has been an absolute nightmare for owners and drafters. His seasons have been everywhere between tremendous and awful; over the last two seasons, he has been worth 7 WAR, split 6 and 1. His career xFIP is 3.57 despite the fact that he has never had a single season with an xFIP between 2.95 and 4.25. The National Library of Medicine refers to smallpox as “A Great and Terrible Scourge.”  With a little reshuffling, we get an apt description of Liriano: Great or a terrible scourge.

For Liriano, it’s not about the slider, it’s about his ability to set up the slider with his four- or two-seam fastballs. In 2010, when he was one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, he primarily threw a low-90s two-seam fastball, which he complimented with a mid-90s four-seamer and an occasional change up, which kept hitters off balance enough to leave them susceptible to his slider, which generated a 22 percent swing-and-miss rate. In 2011, he lost 2 MPH off of both fastballs and missed fewer bats with both. While his slider remained a huge part of his arsenal, losing the element of surprise that comes with it made it less effective.

Liriano’s switch from throwing predominantly a two-seam fastball in 2010 to throwing almost exclusively four-seamers in 2011 bears further study, but the troubling thing about it is that I can’t find a compelling reason for the switch. If the switch were related to the two bouts of shoulder inflammation he had, then I would expect him to switch back to the two-seamer now that the inflammation — presumably — has gone down. If it was simply a try-it-and-see switch, I would expect that a full season of ineffectiveness would compel him to switch back to the two-seamer again. The problem is, there doesn’t appear to be a single reason for the switch, making it impossible to guess whether he’ll switch back or not.

Liriano’s WHIP and ERA have fallen mostly into the same range that Sanchez’s have fallen in, the only difference being that Liriano’s FIP and xFIP are typically match his ERA irrespective of what part of the swing it’s in. So, while Sanchez is more or less the same pitcher year-to-year, who gets undone by bad luck or general regression, Liriano appears to be a completely different pitcher, which isn’t so helpful. This isn’t really a failing of xFIP or anything like that, pitchers don’t typically change their fundamentals this way.

There is a chance that Liriano puts everything together in 2012. He has the tools, we’ve seen him do it before, but even in 2010, his WHIP was still only 1.26 and his ERA 3.62. You can get that kind of production elsewhere without exposing yourself to his downside. As to the question of who would I rather have, I just don’t see enough in Liriano that makes him better than Sanchez’s guaranteed strikeouts. Liriano may have the higher ceiling and a similar floor, but until I can discern with more clarity why he completely overhauled his pitch selection from 2010 to 2011, I’m going with Sanchez, then gritting my teeth every time he issues more than 2-3 walks. Time to stock up on mouth guards.

Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ideally in my draft if I’m deciding between the two of those I already have some other pitchers that I’m relying on for stability. In that case, I’d rather take the upside play with Liriano over Jonathan Sanchez in the AL outside of Dave Righetti park in SF.