The Pittsburgh Pirates have their ace for years to come. His name is Gerrit Cole. He is a hard-throwing, charismatic, fiery personality who can back it up on the mound.
But he is not the most important pitcher for the team.
He is close, to be sure. But he does not have a claim to that distinction.. At least not this season.
In one man’s opinion (mine), that honor goes to Francisco Liriano.
After signing the richest free-agent deal in Pittsburgh Pirates history over the off-season, Liriano was nigh un-hittable during the first half of the season. Opponents scuffled to the tune of a .192 batting average against him before the all-star break to go along with a 3.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Those numbers have since been inflated in the second half on the back of a couple of bad starts.
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Yet when Liriano is on point, the effects are trans-formative for the team behind him. “Filthy Frankie” has certainly earned that nickname with the highest swinging strike percentage of any Pirates starter. And it is not even close. Liriano enjoys a 14.1 SwStr%, almost a full 5 percentage points ahead of – surprise – Cole, who carries a 9.8% rating. For a Pittsburgh Pirates defense that can be suspect at best, every single out that can come without putting the ball in play is a welcomed sight.
Liriano also has the best single pitch of anyone in the Pirates rotation. To the surprise of no one, it is his slider. Widely considered to be one of the best pitches in the game, Frankie’s slider carries the highest weighted pitch value of any pitch by any Pirates starter at a 21.8 pitch value score according to FanGraphs. For reference, a rating of 0.0 is considered “average.” For batters to expect the pitch and still offer so feebly at it speaks volumes. The effectiveness of Liriano’s slider gives him a reliable weapon that he can break out at any time in the count. If he needs an out pitch, it’s there. If he gets behind in the count, the slider can get him right back to an advantage.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have their ace for years to come. His name is Gerrit Cole. He is a hard-throwing, charismatic, fiery personality. But he is not the most important pitcher for the team. That honor goes to Francisco Liriano
FanGraphs recently introduced “Quality of Contact” stats. To pare it down, all pitchers now have a “Soft, Medium, and Hard” hit percentage on batted balls. Since this stat came to be, Liriano has the second lowest hard hit percentage (23.6%) of any Pirates starter.. Happ leads the way with a smaller sample size at 22.5%. So to recap, Liriano has the best pitch of any Pirates starter, the highest percentage of swinging strikes, and when the ball is put in play, it isn’t hit very hard at all.
For Francisco Liriano, there are still some warts in his 2015 season. He is prone to the walk, which elevates his pitch counts, which can lead to some shorter outings. Yet to me he is clearly the most important starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates going forward. To be sure, Cole and Liriano compare so favorably that it’s hard to make that distinction. Cole takes 5.19 pitches per out, Liriano needs 5.30 pitches. Cole has a 49.0% ground ball-rate while Frankie carries a 52.9% clip. Both have above-average line drive percentages and both average over 8.5 K/9.
Looking ahead to the postseason – provided they can get past the wild card- if Liriano is the Liriano he is capable of being, the 1-2 punch can setup the Pirates as legitimate favorites to win every series they may find themselves in. If Liriano falls back into the bad habits we see from time to time, the Pirates rotation becomes an awfully big question mark after Cole. Suddenly we are relying on the health of A.J. Burnett and the relatively-new effectiveness of J.A. Happ to see us through. Liriano can give an opposing team fits and frustrate their best hitters. He can change the eye level of the big cogs in opposing lineups with his nasty slider. With another leftie in Happ presumably pitching close behind him, teams may be forced to use a less-than-ideal lineup against the Bucs in a five or seven-game series.
Thusly, Francisco Liriano is the most important Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher in both the here and now and in the road ahead.