Navigating the MLB Fantasy Labyrinth: Francisco Liriano

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Navigating the MLB Fantasy Labyrinth: Francisco Liriano
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You know that reflex that makes you pull your hand away from a hot stove? Where fantasy is concerned, I must have missed that gene because I got burned twice on Francisco Liriano.

I took him in a couple drafts—in a reasonable position, I’m a fan, not a maniac—and that was bad. Taking other writers to task for selling low on him, well, that was worse. That’s the gamble you take and the points were valid, but by season’s end, I looked quite the fool.

To repurpose an old adage: Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on me again, but the third time’s a charm.

I will readily admit that I’m about as big a Liriano fan as there is right now, but this isn’t about feeling like he’ll be better, it’s about fixing what was wrong last year.

I was ready to pass on Liriano for 2010 after a horrendous end to 2009, despite catcher Joe Mauer’s assertion that Liriano’s appearance in late September against the White Sox was the best he’d seen the lefty pitch all year.

Then the Dominican League started.

Here’s a list of Liriano’s eight starts in the DWL thus far:

5 IP, 5 H, R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K Jan 18

6 IP, 4H, R, 0ER, 6 K Jan 13

6 IP, H, 0 ER, BB, 8 K Jan 7

5 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, BB, 7 K Jan 2

5 Ip, 3 H, 0 ER, BB, 3 K Dec. 26

5 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, BB, 6 K Dec. 16

3.2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0BB, 5 K Dec. 10

3.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, BB, 6 K Dec. 05

Totals: 38.2IP, 24 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 7 BB, 47 Ks, 0.80 WHIP, 0.47 ERA, 10.9 K/9

There are all sorts of caveats that need to be made here. First, the competition isn’t consistently good. He may strike out Alexi Casilla and Ramon Santiago one inning, then two guys who just finished a season at High-A in the next.

Second, even the big leaguers aren’t the cream of the crop. In a random AL Central game, Liriano will have to face Grady Sizemore, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gordon, or Carlos Quentin, and those guys aren’t the ones playing in the winter league this year. Liriano still has a lot to prove in camp and in the first month or so of the season, but the thing I keep telling people is that this is a case where good is good.

There may well have been physical issues that made Liriano struggle at the end of last year, but there is a significant camp who believed that the underlying problems were mental—either he wasn’t trusting his arm or didn’t think his stuff could play anymore, or he simply lost the zone—all these things happen to pitchers.

If that was the case, then it hardly matters who steps in against him; if the problem is internal, the results are going to be poor no matter what. That he has been able to go nearly 40 innings dominating his opponents is a very good sign, even if the hitters he’s faced haven’t been a murderer’s row.  

He’s yet to give up a home run, something that killed him last year, and he’s generating groundballs at a much better rate, which was a key to his success in 2006.

One factor that doesn’t show up in the box score is velocity, which will become critically important very soon, but first: snap back to 2009.

After a strong end to his 2008 season, 2009 was a bad year for Liriano by any measure. He went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. His walk rate and home run rate were through the roof, and by the end of the season, he was too much of a liability to keep in the rotation, even in light of injuries to Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins.

So what happened?

Two things. First, he had pretty poor defense behind him. League average for batting average on balls in play (BABIP) for pitchers is about .300. Liriano’s career rate is .306, but in 2009, his BABIP was .323, which means a number of hitters that should have been retired ended up reaching base. Couple that with the aforementioned high HR rate and it’s not hard to see why Liriano seemed to be giving up runs in bunches.

Second, Liriano set out to throw his slider less last year. Instead, he planned to use his fastball and change up to better set up the slider. He did throw the slider less, 11 percent less than he did in 2006, but setting it up with the fastball was a bad idea. He averaged just 91.7 mph on ‘ol speedy in 2009, and while he isn’t an upper 90s type arm, 91-92 is a pretty hittable pitch, especially if you’re behind in the count.

A slow fastball means two things. First, it means the slider isn’t as much of a change, making it less effective. Second, it means that any pitch he absolutely needed to get past a hitter was going to be the slider, and hitters were ready for it.

So, the start of Liriano’s return to 2008 form begins with the radar gun.

Reports that his velocity was up first appeared when Ron Gardenhire mentioned that he was really throwing fire down in the DWL. They have since been confirmed.

Not that I doubted Gardy’s intel, but “up” is a subjective term. I had a chance to watch Liriano on a grainy rebroadcast, and while I’m not ready to say much about his mechanics, he was absolutely working consistently at 93-94 MPH in the sixth inning, his last inning of work. According to La Velle E. Neal, Liriano’s slider has been clocked at 87-90 MPH. If those velocities remain, he’ll be back at 2006 levels.

I want to emphasize, lest you take Liriano with your third round pick and get mad at me when he isn’t unhittable like he was in 2006, that those days are gone. If he “returns to form,” in my eyes that means the way he pitched at the end of 2008.

Besides the risk that he won’t be able to translate his success to the big leagues, there’s another complicating factor when recommending his draft position—his role on the Twins.

Liriano signed a deal to avoid arbitration a few days ago that carried two bonus tracks. On the first, Liriano would make $25,000 when he hit 24, 26, 28, and 30 games started; on the other, he makes the same amount for his 40, 45, 50, and 55th appearances. From this dual contract, we can see that the Twins aren’t giving Liriano a pass into the rotation this year. Thankfully, the Twins haven’t signed a cagey old vet like they are wont to do, meaning there’s a rotation spot with his name on it.

If he’s a reliever, I can’t really recommend taking him unless your league counts holds. If he’s a starter, he’d be a savvy pick in later rounds. I think there’s a chance he produces like a 10-12 round pick in mixed, but there’s no reason to overbid when the downside is enough to scare some people away completely.

In my AL-only drafts so far, he’s gone in rounds 11 and 13, and Mock Draft Central has his ADP in mixed 5X5 leagues as 310, which is too low. He’s a risk, I get that, but there is no reason he should be going behind Homer Bailey and Alexi Casilla (ADP 295 and 296, respectively).

I strongly believe that Liriano will make the opening day rotation for the Twins. I don’t get the sense that the love him out of the pen, I really feel like they want him in the rotation, but don’t want to get burned like they did last year.

Roto: Know your league, but he’s liable to go anytime after round 10 in AL-only. Mixed is tougher to predict, but if he has a strong start to camp, he’ll rise pretty quickly, since the risk of his being a reliever will drop. I’d absolutely draft him, because he won’t go undrafted.

Keeper: Drop him. He’s not a pick for rounds 1-10 and you can likely steal him later. Still, keep an eye on him, as he’s got a ton of upside.

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