All stats and tables from Baseball Reference. All batted ball data from Baseball Savant.
After Gerrit Cole’s magnificent start on Friday, and indeed, his string of magnificent starts to open the season, it follows that we would hear a lot about him and his resurgence (some might say his breakout). Lost in the buzz around Cole is the start-of-season performance of another former teammate of his, Francisco Liriano. Liriano has not been otherworldly, but has so far looked more like he did in 2013 than in 2017. That is to say, he’s looked quite good!*
*Before you start playing the Small Sample Size Song, I know this is a small sample size, but I wanted to write about it, so stow your tunes at the doorstep.
Here’s a summary of his 6 starts so far, including Friday’s 7 innings of 1-run ball:
Pretty good for a guy that ran a 5.66 ERA last season! As you can see, Liriano pitched quite well in his first start, allowing only 6 baserunners over 6.2 innings, making for a WHIP just under 1. He also allowed only 4 line drives, and pitched the Tigers to a 6-1 victory over Kansas City. A pleasant surprise to open the season for the more pessimistic among us (such as me).
Another surprising start for our friend Francisco. This time, he only went 6 innings, and allowed 2 earned runs instead of 1, but I’d take that from my projected #5 any day. His WHIP here is exactly 1, and he allowed just 2 line drives this time around. More good results from the 34-year old.
Liriano didn’t look as good this time around, but he was never supposed to be an ace in Detroit. We presumably signed him for depth, and while the deal seemed a head-scratcher at the time, Al Avila is looking pretty smart now that Daniel Norris has gone down. This start, Liriano went 5 innings and allowed 8 baserunners along with 2 runs. He had his highest strikeout total of the season, but aside from fly balls allowed, everything else was worse. The thing is, this still isn’t a bad start. It is not, by definition, a Quality Start™, but it’s still a relatively okay one, and it’s certainly still above what we expected from Liriano.
Another passable outing from Francisco. 2 of his 3 earned runs came on the next pitcher allowing inherited runners to score, but that doesn’t change the box score, or the fact that he allowed 6 baserunners in 5.1 innings. His line drives were down, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that he’s allowed a home run in every start except his first. I’d hesitate to call allowing a home run three starts in a row a definite trend, but it’s certainly starting to look like one. Hopefully Franky can turn it around soon.
This is more like it! This qualifies as a quality start. Again, 2 of the 3 earned runs were from inherited runners scoring, and again, that doesn’t change the box score, but it’s always nicer to see a 6 in the IP column than a 5. What’s more, Frenchy did not allow a home run for the first time in almost a month. The worries begin again when you take a look at the number of baserunners allowed (8), and are slightly heightened when you see that he only struck out one batter, but on the plus side, his 2 walks are the lowest he’s allowed since his first start with the Tigers.
Finally, we come to yesterday’s start, which by every metric is the best. Liriano pitched 7 strong innings, allowing 1 earned run on 5 baserunners. What’s more, not only did he not allow a home run — he didn’t allow a single line drive! With only 2 walks again, Francisco seemed to recapture the magic he’d shown in a majority of his 2018 starts.
This article was supposed to be uplifting for Tigers fans. I went into this thinking I’d be able to write nice things about Francisco Liriano and demonstrate that while he’s no Gerrit Cole, he’s still much better than people are giving him credit for.
To my great despair, this does not seem to be the case. Liriano sports a lovely 2.97 ERA and a very respectable WHIP of 1.073. These, plus his H/9 and BB/9, are down a striking amount from 2016, and all but his BB/9 are his best since 2006(!). Unfortunately, his peripherals tell a different story. Liriano’s FIP is 4.13, which is mostly attributable to his paltry 6.4 K/9, itself a point of concern — it’s his lowest ever, by 1.1. But the batted ball data paints an even more dismal picture for Francisco’s future.
Since 2016, Liriano’s hard hit percentage has remained pretty stable, from 33 to 33.7 to 32.7 this year. That puts him in the company of such luminaries as Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Morrow, and Sean Newcomb. That’s a little harsh; this year, he’s closer to guys like Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and Masahiro Tanaka. But it’s early in the season, and I’d still say Liriano comps closer with JC Ramirez than Corey Kluber.
The more worrying data lie in Liriano’s expected outcomes. Statcast measures expected wOBA (xwOBA) based on batted ball profiles and compares it to actual wOBA. Since Statcast began tracking batted balls in 2015, Liriano’s wOBA and xwOBA have remained within 15 points of each other. This season, there is a 109 point difference. A sobering number, to say the least. Couple that with the fact that his xSLG is a frightening .513, it seems our ostensibly-resurgent pitcher has just been exceedingly lucky. I haven’t watched a Liriano start yet this year, but I have listened to a few, and I distinctly recall hearing quite a few exclamations of astonishment from Dan Dickerson directed toward our middle infield.
What originally started as a post meant to proclaim the newfound prowess of a dubious offseason acquisition ended up as a bleak prediction for his future. But we must remember, in our unexpected despair, that this is baseball, and hope spring eternal for the simple reason that we really have no idea what could happen. Nobody could have predicted Andruw Jones’ death spiral, or Rick Ankiel’s conversion from pitcher to outfielder.
And so I remain foolishly optimistic that Liriano’s success is for real. If he starts to pitch poorly, I will probably appeal to small sample size until at least July, while ignoring the massive amount of cognitive dissonance required to hold that position and still write this article. Luckily for me, I don’t care. I am a Tigers fan first, and I am duty-bound to have faith in our players until their last breath, or at least their last breath in a Detroit uniform.
My realistic prediction is that Liriano will pitch to a 4.5-5 ERA for the rest of the season, and I won’t be disappointed. My homer prediction is that he continues to showcase his recaptured abilities and pitches to a 3-3.5 ERA. I will be pleasantly surprised if that happens. If it doesn’t, well, this team was supposed to suck anyway.