The past three seasons Francisco Liriano was one of the best left-handed starting pitchers in baseball, and the Pittsburgh Pirates need him to start to pitch that way once again.
Watching Francisco Liriano pitch this season has been strange for Pittsburgh Pirates fans. This is because Liriano has looked nothing like the pitcher that the Pirates and their fans watched pitch the past three seasons. In fact, Liriano is currently having the worst season of his 11 year Major League career.
So far this season Francisco Liriano has made 11 starts and has pitched 61 2/3 innings in those starts. Liriano is averaging 8.76 K/9, 5.55 BB/9, 1.75 HR/9, and he has a 1.64 WHIP. His strike out rate is the third lowest of his Major League career, and those are three numbers are all the highest he has ever had in any season.
All of the walks, base runners, and home runs have led to Francisco Liriano having a 5.25 ERA, 5.65 FIP, and a 4.53 xFIP. That is the third highest ERA Liriano has ever had in any season in his career, while his FIP and xFIP are both currently career highs. Obviously, none of that is a good.
The Francisco Liriano Pirate fans have watched this year is totally different than the guy who posted a 3.26 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 3.22 xFIP, averaged 9.58 K/9, allowed just 0.65 HR/9, and had a 8.7 WAR in 510 innings pitched during his first three seasons in Pittsburgh. As I said above, Francisco Liriano is currently having the worst season of his Major League career. So, this season has been even worse than some of his struggles in Minnesota toward the end of his tenure there.
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Coming into the season the Pirates appeared to have maybe the best 1-2 punch of any starting rotation in the National League with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. However, Liriano has struggled and now Cole is injured. So, channeling my inner Marshall Mathers, will the real Francisco Liriano please stand up?
It is no secret the Pittsburgh Pirates biggest problem this season has been pitching, and right now the starting rotation might be in the worst shape it has been in all season. Gerrit Cole appears to be headed to the disabled list, Juan Nicasio has been very inconsistent, and Francisco Liriano’s struggles have been covered. Even though I now expect Jameson Taillon to join the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation for good, the Pirates still need Francisco Liriano to begin to pitch like himself once again.
Jon Niese has pitched very well for over a month now, Jeff Locke has been solid this year minus three implosions, and Jameson Taillon showed a lot of promise in his Major League debut on Wednesday night. However, none of these guys are a top of the rotation starting pitcher like Francisco Liriano is. Taillon very well could be, and almost assuredly will be, one day but he is not there yet. The Pittsburgh Pirates need Liriano to start to pitch that way beginning with his start against the St. Louis Cardinals tonight.
The St. Louis Cardinals might be the perfect team for Francisco Liriano to get back on track against. I am not a big fan of comparing pitcher against hitter stats because it is such a small sample size, but in two starts against the Red Birds this year Liriano has been dominant. In those two starts Liriano has allowed just two runs on eight hits in 13 innings pitched, and he has struck out 20 Cardinal hitters.
The biggest problem for Francisco Liriano this season has been his fastball command. Good fastball command has always been key for Liriano throughout his career, because being able to throw his fastball for strikes is what sets up his best pitch his devastating slider. When Liriano is unable to throw his fastball where he wants, it becomes much easier for opposing hitters to lay off his slider.
This season opposing hitters are swinging at just 37.6 percent of sliders thrown outside of the strike zone by Francisco Liriano. That number is down from the 42.7 percent, 40.8 percent, and 44.3 percent he had in his first three seasons as a Pirate. Francisco Liriano has always made a living getting hitters to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. If he is not doing this we see exactly what we have seen this season, less strike outs, more walks, and poor results.
If Francisco Liriano is going to turn things around, the first thing he needs to do is fix his fastball command. One issue I have noticed with Liriano in recent starts, so you know Francisco and Ray Searage have noticed it too, are some mechanical issues. Liriano is not being consistent with his follow through. He’ll go through spurts during games where he gets sloppy with this, and when that happens his control suffers. This explains why in recent starts he’ll have stretches where he looks great for two or three innings, and then just seems to lose it.
As I said though, if I have noticed this than Francisco Liriano and Ray Searage definitely have too. Hopefully, having this start pushed back a few days gave him some extra time to work on things and iron out his issues. Because the Pittsburgh Pirates need the real Francisco Liriano, and now.
The Pittsburgh Pirates currently find themselves one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central standings. This also puts the Pirates one game out of the second National League Wild Card spot. If the Pittsburgh Pirates are still going to make the postseason despite injuries to Gerrit Cole and Francisco Cervelli, they need Francisco Liriano to begin to pitch like a top of the rotation starter the way he did his first three years in Pittsburgh.
So, once again, will the real Francisco Liriano please stand up?
*- Stats and pitch data courtesy of FanGraphs