This title is a bit misleading because it suggests that Francisco Liriano has always been “right” up to this season, where he went wrong. That is not the case. The 32-year-old lefty has spent significant time in the minors on two separate occasions since making his debut in 2005, and despite posting four different seasons of 3+ WAR has struggled to solidify a reputation as a front-end starter.
Still, his flashes of brilliance have made him a rich and recognizable man, and while his current 5.46 ERA doesn’t necessarily make him the best pitcher exchanged at the deadline, he is one of the biggest names changing teams.
Source: Blue Jays get Liriano from Pirates
— Robert Murray (@RobertMurrayFRS) August 1, 2016
After the dust settled on a flurry of deadline moves by Jays GM Ross Atkins, the major narrative around this trade was not that Toronto had acquired Liriano for Drew Hutchison and cash, but that Pittsburgh had thrown in two solid prospects in addition to Liriano. Toronto did need to be compensated in some way for the risky buy low and the inflated salary, but the price seemed high. Keegan Matheson of Jays Journal put it into perspective well with this tweet:
— Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson) August 2, 2016
It’s a confusing move from Pittsburgh’s perspective and one that seemingly signals a withdrawal from the NL Central pennant race. For Toronto, this will either look like a genius play if Liriano rebounds and pitches solidly into next season or a $13 million liability that will limit the team’s financial flexibility in 2017. The prospects offer a hedge against the second scenario and make this trade even more interesting long-term, but today I’m only going to focus on the short-term. Let’s ignore for a second the fact that when you compare Drew Hutchison’s remaining salary to Liriano’s this trade was essentially Toronto buying two prospects for $17 million and look only at the implications for this year.
What’s gone wrong for Francisco Liriano in 2016? And can we expect him to make a real impact as a starter for Toronto down the stretch?
During the All-Star Break I noted that the Jays starting rotation had pitched the most innings in the AL by a substantial margin, and no doubt that was the impetus behind Atkins’ deadline pitching depth spree. But the front office has not said anything definitive about moving Aaron Sanchez to the bullpen yet, and while Liriano a lock to make at least a few starts, he’s not guaranteed a spot in the rotation by any means. That said, if he can solve a few key issues, he could make 10 or 11 meaningful starts that could make a difference in the AL East pennant race.
This is where the discussion has to start. If the season were to end today, Liriano’s 5.46 BB/9 would be the highest mark by a left-handed starter since Randy Johnson posted a 6.79 BB/9 in 1991. If you’re just looking at 2016, it’s Liriano in first at 5.46 and then Brandon Finnegan in second at 4.53. When you’re walking over five batters every nine innings, giving up 1.5 homers every nine innings is a recipe for disaster, which is exactly what Liriano has baked for himself this season. While the 19.6 HR/FB will likely regress back towards his 0.85 career rate, moving from PNC Park (which suppresses homers by 10% relative to league avg.) to the Rogers Centre (which aids them by 6% relative to league avg.) is like adding baking soda and vinegar to that recipe.
Command has always been an issue but this is an outlier that seems to point to deeper issues, like mechanics and velocity. The good news is that both seem relatively unchanged from last season. Take a look at these two GIFs of Liriano’s fastball. The top is from 2015, the bottom is from 2016.
The only difference is that he’s a little closer to the arm-side of the rubber this season. Everything else looks the same, and his while his average fastball velocity is down a tad, he has been gaining speed over the season, breaking 95 MPH in each of his last three starts. I looked at the velo on his secondary pitches – slider/change – and was surprised to find no change at all from last season.
The Swings Have Stopped
When I said earlier that command has always been an issue for Liriano, it may have been more accurate that command has always been a part of Liriano. Back in January, Frangraphs’ August Fagerstrom noted that Liriano owned the two lowest single-season Zone% over the last decade, throwing just 35.3% of his pitches in the zone on average from 2014-2015. Combining that approach with swing-and-miss breaking stuff is what keyed Liriano’s resurgence with the Pirates and is part of a wider trend that guys like the Phillies’ Jeanmar Gomez have exploited.
In a follow up piece this April, Fagerstrom theorized that if opponents would just stop swinging so much against Liriano, they would give themselves a better chance at beating him. Maybe the league’s hitters read Fangraphs, or maybe they just realized it themselves, but after two years of free swinging, they have adjusted.
Only soft-tossing Doug Fister has posted a lower Swing% this season. The increased patience has been rewarded by a huge 7% jump in Z-Contact%. If you widen the focus a bit, you can see that this troubling trend started midway through last season and is especially noticeable with his breaking and offspeed stuff.
You can see from the Zone% data that Liriano has tried to counter-adjust by throwing more strikes, but as we’ll see, counter-adjustments don’t always work.
The Atrocious Fastball
When a pitcher is having issues getting swings on his moving pitches, he tends to lean more heavily on his fastball and sinker to try to regain some consistency. Jake Arrieta has made that adjustment this season, and so has Liriano. According to PITCHf/x, he has upped his sinker usage from 42.8% to 50% while cutting both his slider and changeup by 2%.
However, unlike Arrieta, Liriano doesn’t the most valuable fastball in the league to fall back on. In fact, Liriano’s fastball has been the least valuable in the league both on an aggregate and per 100 basis. His fastball has never been his bread and butter pitch, but my theory is that Liriano’s counter-adjustment – throwing his fastball for more strikes – is making things even worse.
While lefties have also gotten to Liriano this season, righties own a ridiculous .824 OPS against him. A big reason why is his messy fastball location. Back when he could count on hitters swinging out of the zone at his filthy slider and changeup, Liriano used his fastball as a complementary pitch strictly low and away to righties. Now that it’s a main pitch, he’s dabbling all over the zone with it and getting punished inside. Hitters who are already in a mindset to take a few are waiting for that inside fastball and pulling 44% of the time compared to 39% last season. Playing into what pull-heavy, patient hitters want is a good way to raise your Hard% from 24% to 35%.
Unless you’re Randy Johnson, a BB/9 over five is going to get you DFA’d pretty quickly. The walks absolutely have to come down for Liriano to be effective again, but how he makes that happen is less certain. He could try to counter-adjust more aggressively by throwing way more strikes. Maybe he would catch some hitters who read the stat report on him off guard.
Or he could adjust in a smaller, subtler way. Having a ultra-low Swing% is not necessarily a bad thing. Aaron Nola, Kyle Hendricks, and Aaron Sanchez have all had varying degrees of success this season with similar swing rates to Liriano. The no-strikes strategy can still work well for Liriano if he stops relying on his mediocre fastball as his go-to strike pitch. Maybe reuniting with Russell Martin will give him the confidence to throw his slider and changeup around the zone like he did in 2014 and to a lesser extent in 2015. (Although, honestly, that narrative falls apart pretty quickly when you realize that pretty much any catcher is a downgrade from Francisco Cervelli when it comes to framing.)
It’ll be interesting to see if Liriano can avoid becoming an albatross in 2017, but even more interesting to see if he can do something special with the Jays in 2016.