Francisco Liriano Now Playoff-Ready Ace After Years of Inconsistency

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 2, 2013

The Pittsburgh Pirates were looking to win their first postseason game in over 20 years on Tuesday night, so they handed the ball to the guy with the million-dollar arm.

In the end, it worked out.

Veteran southpaw Francisco Liriano, signed to a contract over the winter that guaranteed him only $1 million, took the ball for the Buccos in the National League Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Reds and proceeded to spin a gem worthy of David Price.

Liriano went seven innings, allowing four hits, a walk and one earned run with five strikeouts to pace the Pirates to an easy 6-2 victory. Of his 64 strikes, 17 were of the swinging variety. It was basically a typical 2013 Liriano performance, and the absolutely bonkers crowd of 40,487 at PNC Park approved.

For Pirates fans, Liriano's dominance was nothing new. But that might not be the case for those who haven't been paying close attention to Liriano all year, however. Surely some were sitting in front of their television going, "Wait a minute, is this the Francisco Liriano?"

None other, but any and all confusion is understood. After all...Well, this:

  • 2006: 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 6.6 H/9
  • 2007: A lost year due to Tommy John surgery
  • 2008-2012: 4.75 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 8.7 H/9
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Liriano did have a strong 2010 season, posting a 3.62 ERA and finishing 11th in the AL Cy Young voting. And yes, he also pitched a no-hitter in 2011. But after bursting onto the scene with a brilliant rookie season in '06, there's no denying that Liriano's career went from stellar to just okay.

But then Liriano got his $1 million and did this for the Pirates in 26 starts: 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 7.5 H/9. He went from slouch to ace, and he proved against the Reds that he's a playoff-ready ace. 

Baseball is all about adjustments, so you won't be surprised to learn that Liriano hasn't found success in 2013 because he's doing the same things he's always done. He's not the same pitcher he was in those dark years.

One of the major things Liriano has done this year is change up his fastball game. With data courtesy of Brooks Baseball, see if you can spot the change he's made in a table that shows the percent of time he's thrown his four-seamer and sinker over the years.

You see it, right? That big zero in the four-seamer column for 2013 should stick out like thundersticks in a symphony orchestra. 

Indeed, Liriano hasn't been throwing his four-seam fastball at all in 2013. That's quite the change, and it needed to happen. Let's just say that the numbers suggested that Liriano doing away with his four-seamer would offer certain, ahem, advantages.

Here's more data from Brooks Baseball.

Between 2008 and 2012, Liriano's sinker got him more strikes, drew more swings and got more fouls, more whiffs and more ground balls. And while the four-seamer was better for Liriano's BABIP, the sinker had the advantage of being harder to hit for power (ISO stands for Isolated Power, FYI).

But heck, if you're already thinking "obvious warning signs are obvious," you should see what happened last year. Here's another table just like the one above, except only for the 2012 season:

The writing was on the wall last season that Liriano's four-seamer had to go. In fact, the pitch itself was basically saying, "Dude, why are you still wasting your time with me?"

Establishing his sinker as his one and only go-to fastball isn't the only change Liriano has benefited from in 2013. He's also benefited from a mechanical adjustment.

This is something that's been covered on several occasions by several different writers throughout the year. But for my money, Howard Megdal of Sports on Earth got the best explanations from Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage and Liriano himself about the changes:

'All we did was get him to stay over the rubber, and make his turn over the rubber, show his back pocket to the hitter,' and Searage pivoted his hips toward me, while keeping his torso facing me, to demonstrate. 'Because when he does this, it just ultimately gets him back over the rubber, and gets him into his turn. So this way, it gives him enough time to get his arm up.'

Liriano described the effect of this change on his pitches this way: 'Trying to stay back a little longer, trying not to overthrow it every pitch. I think that's been helping me a lot.'

Armed with a new go-to fastball and altered mechanics, Liriano has found himself benefiting from improved command in 2013. That can obviously be seen in the fact that his walk rate has declined, and it's also something that can be seen in Liriano's first-pitch strike percentage.

Per FanGraphs, Liriano posted a 58.4 first-pitch strike percentage in 2013. That's a couple ticks higher than his career mark of 56.0, and easily his best rate since the 61.4 mark he put up in 2010.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 12: Francisco Liriano #47 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the San Francisco Giants during the first inning at PNC Park on June 12, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images)
Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images

From there, however, it should be known that Liriano doesn't continue to pound the strike zone. On the contrary, his 38.2 Zone% this season was the lowest of his career.

But there's one thing that getting ahead consistently allows a pitcher to do, and that's be more aggressive about expanding the strike zone. Liriano did that to the tune of a career-best 34.6 O-Swing% in 2013, and only Yu Darvish was better at getting hitters to whiff on pitches outside the strike zone.

Pitchers with nasty stuff are able to do such things. And as we all saw (or were reminded) on Tuesday night, Liriano's stuff is on the nasty end of the pitching spectrum.

His sinker may be his go-to pitch, but Liriano's slider and changeup are true soul-crushers. Brooks Baseball has the average velocity of both in the 87-88 mile-per-hour range, which means he's throwing both pitches harder than he was between 2008 and 2012.

More velocity on secondary pitches can lead to less movement. Not in Liriano's case, though. There are horizontal and vertical movement numbers I could throw at you, but, well, you saw his slider and changeup at work against the Reds. You don't need numbers to tell you about the movement. 

It is, however, worth our while to inspect the damage wrought by these two pitches in 2013 a little more closely.

All those swinging strikes Liriano got on Tuesday night? Those weren't accidents. Though his strikeout rate paled in comparison, Liriano got more whiffs than even Darvish with a league-best 13.2 swinging-strike percentage.

Both his slider and changeup played a part in that. Liriano's slider racked up a 41.40 whiff/swing rate, good for fifth among lefty starting pitchers this season. His changeup, meanwhile, posted a 36.43 whiff/swing rate, good for eighth among lefty starters.

Look at those two lists, and you might notice that Liriano is the only lefty in the top 10 in both. Other southpaws had more swings-and-misses on sliders and changeups, but none enjoyed the best of both worlds like Liriano.

Oh, and that slider? It was the death of many a good left-handed hitter in 2013.

As Grantland's Jonah Keri pointed out in early September, Liriano had a historically great season against lefty hitters in 2013. Keri also noted that Liriano's slider was a big reason why, and here are the final regular-season numbers from Brooks Baseball: lefties hit .068 against Liriano's slider with one extra-base hit.

Sure, Liriano's sinker also only yielded one extra-base hit to lefty batters, but there's one major difference between what the two pitches did against lefties. The sinker racked up three strikeouts against them. The slider racked up 33. Eleven times as many.

If you didn't get a chance to see Liriano do his thing at all or that often throughout the regular season, this is what you've missed. He's benefited from ditching his four-seamer in favor of his sinker, and he's benefited from tweaked mechanics that have allowed him to be more precise with his command. His changeup and slider, meanwhile, are nastier than they've ever been.

The result has been an excellent season, one that just got an excellent postseason performance tacked onto it. And then there's this: 

So yeah. Liriano just followed up one of the best seasons of his career with a huge performance in the biggest start of his career. 

For the St. Louis Cardinals, the message is clear: Good luck.

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