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Looking into the "new" Francisco Liriano

The free agent pitcher excelled for the Pirates, after years of underperformance. But will he do the same going forward?

If the Bucs re-up Liriano, will he maintain his success?
If the Bucs re-up Liriano, will he maintain his success?
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, Francisco Liriano had an ERA of 5.34 across 156.2 innings. For his career as a whole, his ERA sat at 4.40 in 840.0 innings. So when the Pirates signed him to a two-year contract, most people looked at these numbers and censured the deal. 323.1 innings of 3.20-ERA ball later, Liriano has improved so much that he wants a $12 million salary over at least three years. That isn't a pipe dream: According to the crowd at FanGraphs, he'll receive something in that neighborhood.

If you read Beyond the Box Score with any regularity, you know of the dangers of ERA. In this section of the blogosphere, we look at other statistics before reaching any conclusions regarding a pitcher. With this hurler, that's especially important, because the advanced numbers diverge from the basic ones.

For the first few years of his career, Liriano had a sizable following among the sabermetric community, owing to his strong peripherals. (He was, you might say, a DIPS hit.) Before coming to Pittsburgh, Liriano owned a career ERA 4% worse than average, with an xFIP 13% better than average. Thus, Dave Cameron deemed the Pirates deal a harbinger of the demise of ERA.

During his tenure in the Steel City, Liriano posted an ERA 11% better than average, while his xFIP remained at 13% better than average. In other words, by peripherals, he pitched just as well for the Pirates as he did for the Twins and White Sox. The improvement, then, came as the result of changes in factors outside his control. His batting average on balls in play plummeted from .307 to .285, while his strand rate rose from 69.8% to 76.1%.

The BABIP marks don't really make much sense, from what Liriano's batted-ball data show:

Years LD% GB% FB% IFFB%
2005-2012 19.1% 47.5% 33.4% 9.2%
2013-2014 21.5% 52.4% 26.1% 5.9%

Line drives and ground balls both have higher BABIPs, and infield fly balls have much lower BABIPs. Coupled with the extremely high threshold for BABIP stabilization, this probably means that .285 figure was probably not caused by a real change in Liriano's game.

The latter LOB% makes even less sense, if possible. Over the past two seasons, he's pitched notably worse with runners on base:

Base State K% uBB% LD% GB% FB% IFFB% xFIP
Bases Empty 26.7% 9.2% 22.9% 51.8% 25.3% 6.5% 2.91
Men On 22.5% 12.0% 19.6% 53.2% 27.2% 5.2% 3.70

Fewer strikeouts and more walks, together with a moderate increase in fly balls, should make him worse, right? They didn't — against all odds, he was better with more pressure (.281 wOBA) than with less (.291 wOBA). BABIP caused this, and that has a way of fluctuating violently.

Once you add it all up, the new Francisco Liriano doesn't seem much better than the old one. In the future, he won't regress to the horrid levels of Minnesota, but he shouldn't sustain this performance. Steamer projects a 3.73 ERA, which would have been just about average last year. The BABIP will rise and the LOB% will fall, just as you'd expect.

In June, BtBS alumnus Lewie Pollis wrote about the tendency of certain players to consistently defy their peripherals. It essentially confirmed something most sabermetricians already knew: The longer a player underperforms, the more likely it is that he will continue to do so. Liriano fit that profile for the entirety of his career, and the past two years probably don't represent a departure from it but rather a balancing of sorts.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.