Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Day Three: Liriano

I've watched plenty of Francisco Liriano. I remember the anticipation of each of his starts his debut in 2005 and the electricity of each appearance in 2006. He was unhittable. Francisco was 'Fernando-mania' or that year's version of Matt Harvey. At least for me. I can't remember loving a player more than Francisco Liriano.

Franky would set up batters with a mid to high 90's fastball dancing on the edges of the strike-zone. But as soon as the hitters thought they timed up the fastball he'd pull the chain on a knee buckling change-up. As soon as the batter had two strikes on him, he had no chance. At that point, the slider was coming. It was the most devastating pitch I ever witnessed as a child. I would argue it was more unhittable than Johan Santana's legendary change-up.

As a 22 year-old rookie, Franky struck out 144 batters in 121 innings. Twenty more than Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander. He also walked just 32 batters, about half of Verlander's total. Regardless of how the Rookie of the Year vote ended up, Liriano was not only the most dominant inning-for-inning rookie, but the most dominant inning-for-inning pitcher in the league.

The Franky I knew and loved made his last start September 3rd, 2006. Naturally he pitched a couple scoreless, hitless innings with two strikeouts that day.

Soon after, my hero underwent Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2007 and returned for 76 innings of solid pitching in 2008. He clearly wasn't the same pitcher, however. Francisco sat in the low 90's with his fastball and his slider was merely okay.

That was pretty much the Liriano we saw in Minnesota up until 2012. His stuff was slightly above average and the command of his pitches was inconsistent at best. In that time period, Francisco pitched 695.1 innings. His slider and changeup were still dynamic enough to rack up 8.7 K/9 but his control was well below average allowing over four walks per game. Save for 2010 when he Francisco held his repertoire together long enough to post 3.62 ERA over 191 innings, Liriano was basically a mess. But he was always on the verge of putting it back together.

That brings us 2013. Francisco Liriano has joined the Pittsburgh Pirates and the National League and produced very well.  He's averaged over six innings per start, more than a strikeout an inning and a respectable 3.8 walks per nine innings. All that adds up to a 2.68 ERA, good for sixth in the National League.

Despite the elite-level results, Liriano is still the Francisco we saw in 2010 and not the Franky from 2006. His fastball/slider combo is above average but not devastating and can't get away with sub-par control. However, he has learned to be more economical in his approach as evidenced by his complete game using just 94 pitches tonight against the Cardinals. That lesson will serve him well and could extend his career as a very good number 2 or 3 starter and should make him a huge asset to the Pirates from here on out.

Unfortunately, we, the fans, lost Franky for good that day in 2006. But we have gained a mature Francisco, who's learned to work with stuff he still has in 2013.

This is as good as a comeback story as there is in Major League Baseball this season. Maybe I should say it's the evolution of pitcher, or the re-inventing of a pitcher. Anyway you put it, it's just good to watch Liriano back in the saddle again.

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