Friday, July 24, 2015

Vintage Frank: Liriano getting better with age

Those of you who listen to my show on 970 ESPN know that I have a somewhat unhealthy man-crush on Francisco Liriano. Saying I view Frank’s work through rose-colored glasses would be understating it by orders of magnitude. So when I talk or write about Frank please keep the prism from which it is coming in mind.

Last night Liriano made start number 19, his first post the All-Star break, and he was as filthy as I’ve ever seen him. Frank is a three-pitch pitcher. He throws a 93-mph fastball and a slider and change that both tend to clock in at 85-86. As with virtually every other pitcher in the game the key to Liriano’s success is fastball command. Last night he had it all going.

Things opened simply enough with Liriano recording assists on the first two batters, making a very good play on a Michael Taylor bunt and then getting Danny Espinosa to ground back to the mound. Then things got interesting. Liriano would go on to strike out 9 of the next 11 batters he faced, blemished only by a five-pitch walk and another comebacker to the mound. Through four innings he recorded nine outs by strikeout and three on 1-3 putouts, allowed no hits and one walk and did it in a surprisingly efficient 57 pitches.

Frank’s work against Bryce Harper stood out. In his first at bat Liriano went right after Harper challenging him with two fastballs up in the zone that Harper swung through and then, after going 2-2, he put him away, swinging, with a slider. Harper’s second time up Liriano again opened with a fastball which Harper swung through but he then fell behind 3-1. At this point you probably don’t want to give Harper anything good to hit, maybe see if you can get him to chase. That’s exactly what Liriano did, getting Harper to chase a slider well out of the zone low and away. At 3-2 he came back with exactly the same pitch with exactly the same result. Harper’s first two at bats, six swings, no contact, 2 Ks.

Things got off the rails for Liriano in the fifth. He threw 33 pitches including three that went to the backstop and the Nats got on the board. He came back with a quick 9-pitch sixth when the first two Nationals batters inexplicably swung at the first pitch, but Harper did make contact this time grounding into a force out. After giving up a double to open the seventh Frank was done for the night. The final line: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 11 K, 103-62.

Most impressive was the 26 swings-and-misses Liriano generated. For me, swings-and-misses is the single best gauge of a pitcher’s “stuff.” I went back through Frank’s game logs and 26 is tied for the second most he’s ever recorded in his career. Liriano recorded more than 20 swings-and-misses for the first time in his career in a start with the Twins against the Brewers in July of 2006 when he registered 25. He recorded 20+ twice more that season, but then missed 2007 with Tommy John surgery. He did not record more than 20 again until June of 2012 when he generated a career-high 30 against the Oakland A’s. (He got traded to the White Sox two weeks later.) That was a bit of an anomaly as it was the only time in 28 starts that season that he had more than 18. 

But since coming to Pittsburgh, and the National League, in 2013 things have changed. In just his third start with the Pirates he generated 20 swings-and-misses on 91 pitches against the Cubs. Two starts later he got 21. He got 20+ two more times in 2013 and did it five times in 2014. Last night marked the third time he’s done it in 2015. So in 141 American League starts he generated 20 or more swings-and-misses four times, only once after his surgery. In three National League seasons he’s done it 12 times in 76 starts. Certainly having pitchers bat has played into that number, but I think we are seeing Liriano at his very best at age 31. The peripherals back it up. Since missing 2007, Liriano is posting bests in WHIP, H/9, BB/9, K/9. I banged the drum hard for the Pirates to re-sign Liriano when he hit free agency this offseason. I don’t think you will find a better signing than the 3-year, $39 million deal which Neal Huntington inked with Liriano. Pirates fans can sit back and enjoy Filthy Frank through 2017.

Come on Joe Sheehan, you still don’t think he’s a front-of-the-rotation starter?

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