Liriano…More Like Lirian-yes!
Winning multiple trades in dynasty leagues often leads to winning multiple championships. To win a trade, an owner needs to pinpoint an undervalued asset and pounce. Francisco Liriano has not only established himself as an excellent pitcher, but a perpetually undervalued one as well. He has consistently performed well in each of his three years pitching for pitching coach Ray Searage in Pittsburgh, and based on his current re-daft ADP as the 35th starter off the boards he remains an underappreciated target.
In 2006, Liriano burst onto the scene as a member of the Minnesota Twins, pitching in 28 games and starting 16 of them. The southpaw finished the season with nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.16 ERA, good enough to garner a third place showing in Rookie of the Year voting. Unfortunately, he also ended the season with a sore forearm that ultimately led to Tommy John surgery in the offseason and a lost 2007. When he returned to the mound, he struggled to recreate the magic of his rookie campaign, ending three of the next five seasons with an ERA north of 5.00 and struggling all the while with his control.
After finishing the 2012 season with the Chicago White Sox, Liriano signed a free agent deal with the Pirates, and began to change his approach under Searage’s tutelage. He immediately cut down his fastball usage by 20%, instead leaning more on his changeup and slider, and the latter quickly evolved into one of the best pitches in all of baseball. More recently, Liriano shifted to throwing more 2-seam fastballs, almost abandoning his 4-seamer altogether in 2015. The change in pitch selection subsequently brought a change Liriano’s batted ball distribution, as he exchanged fly balls for grounders and lowered his hard hit rate considerably.
With better pitch sequencing and his new focus on keeping the ball on the ground came better results. Since joining the Bucs his slider rates as the second-best in baseball in terms of runs saved, trailing only Tyson Ross. His changeup hasn’t been far behind either, as that offering also knocks on the door of the top 10 during the same stretch. The higher usage of those two pitches has allowed Liriano to carve up opposing hitters to the tune of three straight seasons with a sub 3.50 ERA. Each year his ERA has been supported by his xFIP, as his BABIP, LOB%, and HR/FB ratios have all been near league-average each season, ruling out luck as a significant factor.
The peripherals are all well and good, but the main reason Liriano has continued to produce stellar ERA’s has been his propensity to miss bats consistently; he’s maintained his career rate of whiffing more than a batter an inning in each of his Pittsburgh seasons. While with the Bucs, Liriano has been an elite pitcher at keeping hitters off balance, posting the second-lowest contact rate of any starting pitcher over the past three years. Assuming he continues to miss bats at this pace, the strikeouts alone make him worth his spot on your roster.
Nearly every player has flaws, however, and Liriano is no different. With all of the strikes Liriano throws, they come with a lot of balls. Ever since his surgery, Liriano has had trouble consistently keeping command of the strike zone: in only one year since 2006 has Liriano walked less than three batters-per-nine. Because of that he has remained consistently among the top 10 in both pitches thrown outside the zone and walk rate, and all of those walks have led to a WHIP north of 1.20 in each of the last three seasons. Similar to most pitchers with his high-walk, high-strikeouts profile, Liriano has struggled with high pitch counts. It’s one of the main reasons he has only managed to log 19 wins combined over the past two years, which hasn’t helped fantasy teams or his perceived value.
The 32-year-old also hasn’t been able to shed the injury concerns that have plagued him since his first arm surgery. Liriano missed the start of the 2013 season due to an injury to his non-throwing arm, and then missed time in 2014 due to an oblique injury. He was able to escape the 2015 season with no time spent on the disabled list, but as he continues on into his 30’s the injury risks will only continue to rise.
Sometimes it’s the flaws that make players undervalued, however. Despite those warts, Francisco Liriano has dependably provided high strikeout totals and solid contributions to ERA for fantasy teams for the past three seasons. His peripheral stats and pitch repertoire have backed up his stellar surface stats, ruling out luck as a strong factor for the left-hander’s run. Liriano is currently going 35th among starters in NFBC re-draft leagues, despite producing top 25 value last year. That value gap is likely even larger in dynasty leagues, where focus invariably trains on younger, shinier assets. It’s easy to overlook consistent veterans like Liriano; don’t be the guy in your league who does.
Injury concerns aside, do you see Liriano’s predicted BB/9 more in line with 2015 and 2013 (about 3.45), or 2014 and 2012 (about 4.75)?
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I believe his BB/9 in 2016 will hinge on if he maintains the changes he made in his pitch selection in 2015. Last year, he essentially abandoned his 4 seam in favor of throwing more 2 seams. And though his zone% was similar, it seemed as though Liriano was picking his spots more and got better results. Also, you mentioned the injuries. 2014 may have had something to do with the oblique injury he missed time with, too.