Francisco Liriano grabbed win No. 11 on the season by beating St. Louis on Monday. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Francisco Liriano had almost hit the bottom. He'd flopped through a difficult 2012 season split between Minnesota and Chicago, with a 5.34 ERA and a walk rate of five batters per nine innings. His ERA had been above 5.00 three times in the last four years, and his control, once immaculate, had disintegrated. He went into free agency and scored a two-year deal with Pittsburgh, but few predicted he'd be anything more than a fifth starter with control problems, maybe giving the Pirates 80 or so mediocre innings.
As it turns out, Liriano has shown up in 2013 looking every bit like the electric-armed stud with a wipeout slider he was when he broke into MLB at 21. On Monday, Liriano picked up his 11th win of the season, shutting down the National League-best St. Louis Cardinals over seven innings. He gave up just one run on four hits and two walks, striking out eight. For the season, Liriano now boasts a 2.16 ERA, which would be the fourth-best mark in baseball if he qualified for the ERA title, over 95 2/3 innings, with a strikeout-per-nine ratio of 9.41, the ninth-best ratio in MLB. He's a big reason why the Pirates, at 62-42, are now tied with the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central.
It's an amazing comeback for a pitcher who looked as close to done as could be. How has Liriano done it? For starters, he's cut down on the walks significantly. His walks-per-nine rate, which was above 5.00 in 2012 and '11, is now a much more manageable 3.48. Most of his plate discipline stats are unchanged from 2012, except for one: First-strike percentage. 2012 Liriano got a first strike on hitters just 54 percent of the time, but that's jumped all the way to 58 percent in 2013. Add to that a slight increase in swinging-strike percentage and swing percentage, and you have a pitcher who's getting ahead of hitters more often, putting him in better position to finish an at-bat.
What's also helped is a simplification of Liriano's pitches. Before 2013, Liriano threw four pitches: A four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider and a changeup. Last season, he got passable results with his sinker (.289 average against with a .380 slugging percentage) and excellent results with his offspeed and breaking pitches (.207/.370 with the changeup, .183/.304 with the slider). But the four-seamer got pounded: Opposing batters hit .351 with a .649 slugging percentage on Liriano's four-seam fastball with eight homers in 111 at-bats. Furthermore, Liriano simply couldn't produce swings and misses with the pitch, getting whiffs on just three percent of the 595 four-seamers he threw all season.
So for 2013, Liriano ditched the four-seamer, going with the sinker, slider and changeup as his main arsenal. Where the four-seamer used to be his go-to first pitch and two-strike pitch, especially against left-handers, he now uses the sinker to set batters up, then his slider (against left-handers) and changeup (against right-handers) to finish them. It's a winning switch, with his slider in particular getting devastating results: .117 batting average against, .180 slugging percentage against, and swings-and-misses on 20 percent of them thrown.
Getting rid of the four-seamer hasn't just helped Liriano cut down his walk rate and home-run rate (from 1.09 homers per nine in 2012 to 0.38 in 2013). It's also helped him stay ahead of right-handed hitters. In 2012, right-handers lit Liriano up to the tune of a .784 OPS and 18 homers in 535 plate appearances, compared to .603 and a single homer in 158 plate appearances against left-handers. Most of that damage came on the four-seamer, against which right-handers hit .366 with a Barry Bonds-esque .688 slugging percentage. Against left-handers, it was slightly better, though still problematic, at .278/.444. For 2013, Liriano has rebounded against right-handers—.644 OPS against going into Monday—and become unhittable against lefties, with an incredible .116/.187/.130 line in 76 plate appearances.
Can Liriano keep it up? His strikeout numbers are elite, and his control is above-average. He's had some luck on balls in play—despite a line-drive percentage of 23.4, his batting average on balls in play is just .280. But he's keeping the ball on the ground, giving up fewer flyballs (and fewer home runs), and has limited the damage right-handers do against him while dominating lefties. Injuries are always the big concern with Liriano—he managed just 156 2/3 innings last year, and threw just over 130 two of the three years before that—and efficiency has been an issue, as Liriano often struggles to get past the sixth inning. But three of his last four starts have gone seven innings or more, including a complete-game effort against the Cubs on July 5. If Liriano can stay healthy and keep his pitch count low, there's no reason that his late-career comeback can't continue.