Should we have seen Francisco Liriano coming?

Denis Poroy

I'm not sure if you remember what the offseason is like, but that's because your brain releases chemicals on Opening Day to make you forget. You see bunting and bunting, everything flashes with a pure white light, and suddenly it's August. Nature is amazing.

But don't kid yourselves. The offseason is boring. The Unified Theory of Offseason Boredom has been around since 1923, and it goes like this:

In every offseason, you always end up talking about Kyle Lohse.

Again, this has been true since 1923, which is kind of amazing. But every offseason eventually devolves into Kyle Lohse talk. Where's he going? What's he thinking? What's he wearing? How good is he, really? This last offseason was no different. There was a lot of Kyle Lohse talk. It's all we had left, so we talked about him. A lot.

No one talked about Francisco Liriano.

MLB Trade Rumors had Liriano as the 28th-best player on the market, which seemed high at the time. You couldn't make a good cup of tea on the hot stove stuffed with Liriano rumors. The Royals were so desperate for a starting pitcher, they traded their very best prospect for one. They absorbed a $12 million salary for the privilege of taking a flyer on another, and re-signed the most boring pitcher on the market because they were terrified of losing him.

Liriano was out there and looking for just a one-year, make-good deal. That isn't to say the Royals weren't interested. But they were whelmed, at best. They had other options. As did the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Brewers … heck, just about every team in the game signed at least one starting pitcher. Liriano -- the Matt Harvey or Jose Fernandez of his day, if you're looking for some perspective -- signed for $1 million and bonuses contingent upon days spent on the disabled list.

This is Francisco Liriano:


That is one nasty, brutish slider. And that's the pitcher everyone was lukewarm on. That's if they were even interested in the first place. In a world where Ben Sheets can get $10 million from the A's a season after major surgery, how does Liriano slip by 29 teams? Should we have seen Liriano coming?

Here's Liriano the last two seasons:

Year Age ERA G IP HR BB SO ERA+ BB/9 SO/9
2011 27 5.09 26 134.1 14 75 112 80 5.0 7.5
2012 28 5.34 34 156.2 19 87 167 78 5.0 9.6

Lots of numbers up there. Which is the one that sticks out? The nice, easy symmetry of the five walks per nine innings pitched is what gets me. Pitchers who do that in their late 20s are usually broken in some way. Oliver Perez, Jonathan Sanchez, Dontrelle Willis, Ricky Romero … those are the lefties who walked five batters per nine innings in their late 20s. They don't come back, Perez's new career excepted.

But Liriano came back, and he's having his best season since he was Fernandez or Harvey. If he walked five per nine last year, and now he's good, he must have found the secret to good command. That's it, everyone. He has good command. He watched an After School Special on it, and now he can throw strikes. Just look at the stats.

Percentage of pitches in the strike zone
2008: 49%
2009: 48%
2010: 48%
2011: 44%
2012: 43%
2013: 41%

What the … he's throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone than ever. But his walk rate is at its lowest since that mesmerizing 2006 season. This doesn't make a lick of sense. Until you go to the distribution of pitches, at least.

Distribution of pitch types
2008: 61% fastballs, 14% sliders, 23% changeups, 1% other
2009: 61% fastballs, 25% sliders, 14% changeups
2010: 49% fastballs, 32% sliders, 19% changeups
2011: 50% fastballs, 29% sliders, 20% changeups
2012: 50% fastballs, 33% sliders, 17% changeups
2013: 42% fastballs, 37% sliders, 21% changeups

There are fewer pitches in the strike zone because he's throwing more off-speed stuff when he's ahead in the count -- more off-speed pitches in general, too. Those pitches are supposed to dip out of the strike zone. So, yes, his control is better, even if he's throwing fewer pitches in the zone. He's getting fewer swinging strikes than he did in his prime, but he's around the plate so often, that he's getting more swings on the stuff that isn't in the strike zone.

So back to the question: Should we have seen this coming?

What a silly question. Of course not. Put it this way:

Pitcher A (2008-2012): 680 IP, 5 WAR, 4.46 ERA, 5.0 BB/9, 9.1 K/9
Pitcher B (2008-2012): 695 IP, 5 WAR, 4.75 ERA, 4.1 BB/9, 8.7 K/9

Pretty close, right? Eerily close. Pitcher A is Jonathan Sanchez, and Pitcher B is Liriano. When the Pirates signed Sanchez in the offseason, there weren't a lot of "Ooh, good gamble, mates" or "Bully of a signing!"s going around. It was lol Pirates and more lol Pirates. Look at those jerks. They signed the guy who can't pitch, and they want him to pitch. What a bunch of maroons.

And the peanut gallery was right. Sanchez was a gamble that didn't pay off. He was worth -1 wins for the Pirates in just 13 innings. That's a win the Pirates could use right now.

But the Pirates hit on Liriano. Oh, man, how they hit on Liriano. There's no rhyme or reason to it. He was visited by the command fairy in the offseason. If it were any other organization, we'd all be quick to credit some in-house pitching guru for a mechanical tweak. But it's the Pirates. They haven't really had success turning Randy Bockus into Randy Johnson over the past two decades.

The Pirates, undeterred by the Erik Bedard failure the season before, were busy collecting acorns in the offseason, just hoping one grew into a mighty oak. And now they're probably going to the playoffs because of it. No one saw this coming, except maybe the Pirates in their fever dreams. And for once those fever dreams are paying off for the Pirates. It's about time.

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