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Is Francisco Liriano Best Option for Pittsburgh Pirates in NL Wild Card Game?

Ely SussmanCorrespondent ISeptember 21, 2013

With the St. Louis Cardinals clinging to the NL Central lead, the Pittsburgh Pirates may reluctantly settle for a National League wild-card berth.

Should that happen and set up a one-game, win-or-go-home scenario, manager Clint Hurdle will trust left-hander Francisco Liriano with the starting responsibility, according to Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

It's an option that we've talked about. I think the way it lines up right now, if there were no changes, Liriano would be able to pitch a play-in game or the first wild-card game which isn't a bad option to have if that's where you end up going.

Liriano has exceeded everybody's expectations in 2013 by solidifying Pittsburgh's rotation, but is he Hurdle's best option for that Oct. 1 elimination game? What about A.J. Burnett? Or red-hot rookie Gerrit Cole?

Each individual obviously comes with his unique pros and cons. Taking their pitch selections, past experiences, major weaknesses and personal schedules into consideration, which of them would actually fit this assignment?

We're committed to resolving that dilemma.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Updated through Pittsburgh's Sept. 20 game.

 

Francisco Liriano

Liriano in 2013: 2.88 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 155/62 K/BB in 156.0 IP.
Liriano in 2013: 2.88 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 155/62 K/BB in 156.0 IP.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

When Liriano repeats his delivery and possesses his Grade-A stuff, he's the best hope that the Pirates have of advancing.

The 29-year-old has five of the top eight Game Scores for Pittsburgh this season, and nine of the top 17. For those unfamiliar, it's a Bill James stat that evaluates a pitcher's start based on strikeouts, innings pitched and baserunners/runs allowed.

On the flip side, Liriano is occasionally a train wreck. His implosion against the Colorado Rockies on Aug. 9, for example, received a negative Game Score and represented one of the worst pitching efforts by anyone this summer.

He consistently dominates with the platoon advantage, however, as he proved again on Saturday night. Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds are two of baseball's biggest threats from the left side, and Liriano held them hitless.

With his final regular-season start scheduled for Sept. 25, taking the mound for the Wild Card Game would come on five days' rest.

 

A.J. Burnett

Burnett in 2013: 3.43 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 191/63 K/BB in 176.0 IP.
Burnett in 2013: 3.43 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 191/63 K/BB in 176.0 IP.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The average length of Burnett's outings this summer has been about six and one-third inning, which is slightly superior to Liriano.

He's less flashy yet more consistent. The veteran right-hander always gives his club an opportunity to win, but not necessarily a great opportunity.

According to FanGraphs, Burnett ranks second among qualified MLB starters with his 56.6 percent ground-ball rate. His fastball-curve combo also generates plenty of whiffs, as evidenced by his 191 strikeouts through 176 innings. Therefore, he doesn't often rely on the Pirates defense to make difficult plays.

For what's it's worth, the Arkansas native is less productive than Liriano in the batter's box. He has zero extra-base hits since 2005 and weaker contact skills.

Unless Hurdle gets creative with his rotation alignment, Burnett would need to work on short rest to make an Oct. 1 appearance.

 

Gerrit Cole

Cole in 2013: 3.23 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 94/27 K/BB in 111.1 IP.
Cole in 2013: 3.23 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 94/27 K/BB in 111.1 IP.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Cole is venturing into uncharted territory by pitching far more often than he has in any previous professional campaign.

However, he's handling the situation beautifully.

He boasts a 2.18 earned run average over his past seven starts, each time lasting at least six innings. Cole's strikeout rate has steadily crept up, culminating in this masterpiece on Thursday, as he set a personal best by whiffing 12 San Diego Padres:

Brooks Baseball shows us that his high 90s fastball hasn't eroded at all from start to start.

 

Verdict

Hurdle currently has Charlie Morton penciled in to start Game 162 on Sept. 29.

If the result of that game determines whether Pittsburgh gets a postseason berth, or even if home-field advantage for the Wild Card Game hangs in the balance, then the skipper ought to use Cole in that matchup. He'll be fully rested coming off an outing five days prior.

The 23-year-old right-hander is the steadiest pitcher on the staff right now, but ultimately, the schedule dictates that Liriano is the best fit should the Pirates be fighting for their playoff lives on Oct. 1.

 

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