Jun 15, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher
(47) delivers a pitch against the Chicago White Sox during the first inning of an inter-league game at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
#1) June 15 – Francisco Liriano vs Chicago White Sox
Maybe the Pirates should use strictly lefties in interleague play as the top 2 starting pitching performances from 2015 both came by lefties against an American League foe. Of course, it helps when one of those lefties is Francisco Liriano and the team he’s facing is the Chicago White Sox – residents of last place in the Central Division at the time of this game.
This game is a little different from others on the list as it was pure domination by the Pirates in every aspect. Liriano was flat out dominant, allowing just 2 hits and a walk while striking out twelve over 8 shutout innings. The offense crushed Chicago’s starter Carlos Rodon and to rub salt in the wound, Starling Marte recorded a “little league home run” when he doubled to right field and scored on an error on the throw to third base.
Francisco Liriano has been a household name for quite some time now and as good as he’s been, he’s never been this good. This outing was the best of Liriano’s career and the only start that was even close was one game in 2006.
With Marte and company putting on a show around him, perhaps Liriano wanted to give his defense a break and he did just that. Liriano struck out at least one batter in every inning of work and struck out the side twice. Even when the White Sox managed to put the ball in play, they played right into Liriano’s trap as they repeatedly drove the ball straight into the dirt. Liriano only induced 2 fly ball outs and one of them was in foul territory.
Obviously, a pitcher with a strong sinker is going to be more likely to force ground balls but only if the location compliments the movement. This graph shows how Liriano peppered both sides of the strike zone but only went above the belt about 5 times out of 100 pitches (that is some unbelievable control on display).
All of his pitches were working that day – as they need to be for anyone to pitch this well – but the changeup and slider were exceptionally effective for Liriano. You can see, on the graph above, all of the swings and misses just below the zone and you’d imagine that would be the work of his sinker, but you’d be wrong. He was throwing the changeup and slider both for strikes at a rate over 70% but surprisingly, Liriano caused swings and misses on 43.5% (!!!) of his changeups and 25% of his sliders (his sinker, only 6.3%).
While most people would blindly choose Gerrit Cole to have had the best start for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, I don’t think anybody who watched this season would be surprised to find out it came from Francisco Liriano. He was overshadowed by Cole but quietly had a great season and gave the Pirates and their fans not only the team’s best, but his personal best.
The parity in this list is astonishing. When I was preparing this, I thought maybe one of A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ and Jeff Locke would make the list but never would have guessed all three. The Pirates had a deep rotation and was a major reason they finished 2nd in the toughest division in baseball last season but next season, they don’t have that luxury – at least as it stands now. The rotation will rely on the success of Cole and Liriano more than ever before but if Jon Niese and Jeff Locke are able to make a few starts worthy of this discussion for next year, much of the burden will be lifted.