Can Francisco Liriano’s Recent Good Run Continue?

May 24, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

After struggling for much of the season, in his past six starts Pirates’ left-handed starting pitcher Francisco Liriano has looked like himself. Can it continue?

One of the biggest reasons why the Pittsburgh Pirates were so inconsistent through the first three months of the season was due to inconsistent starting pitching. A big reason why the starting pitching was inconsistent was due to the struggles of Francisco Liriano. However, in the past month Francisco Liriano has begun to turn his ship around.

Next to Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano is the most talented starting pitcher on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ roster. When Liriano is on there are very few left-handed starting pitchers in baseball that are better than him. This is why his struggles this season have been so puzzling.

Francisco Liriano’s overall numbers for the season are not pretty. In 105 1/3 innings pitched he is still averaging 9.06 K/9, but after his strikeout rate his numbers go off a cliff. Liriano is averaging 5.30 BB/9 and allowing 1.28 HR/9, both of which are career worsts. Furthermore, Francisco Liriano has issued more walks than any other pitcher in the National League.

His 1.55 WHIP ties the career worst he set in 2009, and he has a 4.96 ERA, 4.91 FIP, and a 4.47 xFIP. Francisco Liriano’s FIP is the highest of his career, and his xFIP is the second highest. Even though they are trending in the right direction, his swing and miss rates are also at career worst rates so far in 2016.

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Lately, Francisco Liriano has started to pitch more like himself though. Francisco Liriano has strung together six consecutive strong starts, with the past three being exceptionally strong. Furthermore, his last start was the best of the bunch.

In his past six starts Francisco Liriano has pitched 32 innings, and has a 1.37 WHIP. He is averaging 9.00 K/9, 4.50 BB/9, and, maybe most encouragingly, just 0.28 HR/9. Francisco Liriano has always been a pitcher that walks a lot of batters, but prior to this season never gave up home runs at such an alarming rate which helped him work around the walks. In these six starts Francisco Liriano also has a 3.23 FIP and a 54.4 percent ground ball rate.

As I said above, Liriano’s past three starts have been even better. In 17 2/3 innings pitched in these three starts Liriano is averaging 10.70 K/9, 3.51 BB/9, 0.51 HR/9, a 68.2 percent ground ball rate, and he has a 1.08 WHIP. This has resulted in Liriano posting a 3.06 ERA, 3.02 FIP, and a 3.14 xFIP in these three starts.

Francisco Liriano’s last start was the most encouraging one of all. He pitched 6 2/3 brilliant innings against the Milwaukee Brewers last Thursday, allowing just two earned runs on four hits. The most dominating part of Liriano’s start last Thursday was that he struck out 13 batters while walking none. This was vintage Francisco Liriano.

Looking ahead, there is reason for optimism around Francisco Liriano. In recent starts his results have, obviously, been better. Furthermore, he has stopped allowing as many home runs as he was before hand. Liriano has also seen an uptick in ground balls. Through is first 13 starts he had a 50 percent ground ball rate, that has improved to 54.4 percent over the course of his previous six starts.

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The most encouraging sign from Francisco Liriano is recent starts however is his improved fastball command. Fastball command has always been the key to Liriano’s game. If he is able to spot his fastball where he wants to, this sets him up to be able to use his slider and change-up effectively to get swings and misses.

As his fastball command has improved, so has his swing and miss rate. Opposing hitters are laying off less pitches outside the zone, which has led to less contact being made by opposing hitters off of Francisco Liriano’s pitches. The increase command has also, obviously, led to Liriano issuing less walks (5.65 BB/9 in his first 13 starts, 4.50 BB/9 his previous six starts).

Another factor working into Francisco Liriano’s favor is that his next three starts will come against the Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers, and Cincinnati Reds. The Mariners ranked 23rd in Major League Baseball with a .245 team batting average against left-handed pitching this season, the Brewers rank 21st with a .247 team batting average against left-handed pitching, and the Reds rank 24th with a .244 team batting average against left-handed pitching. So, Liriano’s next three starts will come against teams that struggle against left-handed pitching.

As I wrote last week, I truly believe that Francisco Liriano could be the key to the rest of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season. When he is pitching the way he has his previous three starts, he is as good as any left-handed starting pitcher in the National League not named Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner. Getting this Liriano back on an every start basis is better than any trade deadline acquisition the Pirates could make.