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Francisco Liriano

In Baseball on August 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm

When people look for healing waters, they usually go to Lourdes. It’s rustic, picturesque and mysterious. It’s everything that Pittsburgh is not. But every fifth day in 2013, the waters of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers have shown their own healing powers when Francisco Liriano climbs the mound at PNC Park.

With a little more than a month remaining in the regular season, Liriano has quietly established (or re-established, but we’ll get to that later) himself as one of the best starters in the National League. His 14 wins are tied for first among NL pitchers. He’s tied for fourth in the NL in complete games. And if an early-season stint on the disabled list hadn’t limited his innings, both his 2.53 ERA and 141 ERA+ would be fifth best in the league.

It’s always remarkable when a pitcher metamorphoses from mediocrity to dominance, especially when it’s a rapid transformation. In Liriano’s case, the contrast between his decidedly average 2012 and his outstanding 2013 emphasizes that change — that it wasn’t always like this. But the mid-career renaissance of a 29-year-old veteran pitcher is only one angle of the story. Instead of 2013 as the transformation of Francisco Liriano, it could be the rediscovery of Francisco Liriano. Because when you look at the numbers from early in his career, it looks as if 2013 should be basic, not breakout.

It’s almost worthy of a double-take, but Liriano has been in the major leagues since 2005. And if you rack your brain, you might remember that he had an amazing rookie season with the Minnesota Twins. As a 22-year-old, Liriano posted a 12-3 record, compiled a 2.16 ERA and an eye-popping 216 ERA+ in just 121 IP. He was an All-Star and finished third in the American League rookie of the year balloting. Liriano was poised for stardom, and, when combined with Cy Young Award-winner Johan Santana, would be half of the finest pitching duo in Major League Baseball. So, you ask yourself, why don’t I remember any of this? Well, during an August 7 start against the Detroit Tigers, Liriano heard a pop in his elbow. Just a pop. And with that pop, the thought of a Santana-Liriano one-two punch evaporated into the cold Minnesota night. He underwent Tommy John surgery November 6, 2006 and missed the entire 2007 season.

The success rate for UCL replacement surgery is higher than 85 percent after a 12-16 month recovery. And anecdotally, pitchers can come back from the surgery seemingly reinvigorated, with more zip on their fastball or an altogether new — but equally dominant — pitch that plays to the strength of that brand new ulnar collateral ligament.

But from 2008-2012, it looked like Liriano was part of the 15 percent that weren’t so lucky. His 2008 season was pedestrian at best: over 14 starts, Liriano compiled a 6-4 record with a 3.91 ERA, a 108 ERA+ and a K% that, at 20.4, was 10 percentage points lower than his breakout 2006 campaign. The next season was even worse. Liriano made 24 uninspired starts before being relegated to the bullpen. He posted a 5-13 W-L record, a 5.80 ERA, a 76 ERA+ and the highest walk rate of his career. In 2010, he bounced back — slightly. Liriano made 31 starts for the Twins — the most of his career — and pitched a career-high 191.2 innings. He pitched to a 14-10 record with a 3.62 ERA, a 112 ERA+ and boosted his K% while lowering his walk rate. He finished 11th in the Cy Young Award voting, but this was not the 2006 Liriano. If 2006 Liriano was Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show, 2010 Liriano was Elvis’s Aloha from Hawaii. The next two seasons were disastrous, with ERAs over five and ERA+s around 80. After a trade to — and subsequent release by — the Chicago White Sox, it looked like Liriano was finished.

And yet, here we are talking about Francisco Liriano in 2013. After his release by the White Sox, Liriano signed a two-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates — which was summarily voided when he failed a physical due to an injury to his non-throwing arm. The team offered a restructured two-year contract, and Liriano made his season debut May 11. There must be something in the water, because 2013 Liriano looks a lot like 2006 Liriano. His 3.5 BB/9 is his lowest rate since 2006. He’s boosted his K/9 rate nearly by two, and his 25.5 K% is his highest since 2006. Through 19 starts, Liriano has compiled a 2.56 ERA and a 141 ERA+. True, he’s gotten a bit lucky. His .287 BABIP is 17 points lower than his career average. But his 80.2 left on base percentage is only 3.2 percent lower than his career high (from 2006), and is 14 percent higher than his 2012 mark. Even more impressive, Liriano has held opposing batters to an absurdly low .214 batting average against, and a miniscule .37 HR/9. Most revealing, however, is his pitch selection. After his Tommy John surgery, Liriano relied heavily on his fastball, throwing it more than 50 percent of the time in four of five seasons from 2008-2012. But in 2013, only 41.4 percent of his pitches have been fastballs, which lines up closely to his 2006 mark of 43.6 percent. Furthermore, he’s utilized his slider more often and boosted its velocity. In 2013, 37 percent of Liriano’s pitches have been sliders, with an average velocity of 86.7 MPH. That’s his highest slider percentage since — you guessed it — 2006, when 37.6 percent of his pitches were fastballs. Simply put, Liriano has pitched like it’s 2006 by pitching like it’s 2006.

Even with his return to form, Liriano’s accomplishments have been largely overshadowed by the utter dominance of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the consensus Cy Young favorite, along with a few other NL pitchers, and the Pirates’ unexpected postseason chase. But Liriano’s pitching has been a key factor in the team’s success. And if the Pirates succeed in their playoff quest, you can be sure that the team will look to Liriano to anchor the rotation. Pittsburgh still isn’t Lourdes, but if Liriano keeps it up, the Three Rivers might start showing up on pilgrimage maps.

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