Fantasy baseball Pitching Report: Liriano's unexpected resurgence

Tuesday August 6th, 2013

Since upgrading his pitching repertoire this year, Francisco Liriano has developed into the Pirates' ace.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

Tuck the following potential piece of knowledge away for some bar room trivia a few years down the road. Francisco Liriano has a great chance to be the first person to win the Comeback Player of the Year award in both leagues. He turned the trick in 2010 with the Twins, and he's unexpectedly a major reason why the Pirates look poised to make the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

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In 2011 and 2012, Liriano's ERA was north of 5.00, and he appeared to be on his way out of the league as he approached his 30th birthday. That makes his performance this year seemingly impossible to explain. The lefty is 12-4 with a 2.02 ERA, 2.71 FIP and 106 strikeouts in 102.2 innings. He has surrendered just four homers, making him one of the hardest pitchers to take deep this year, which is a major turnaround from each of the last two seasons. I say his resurgence is seemingly impossibly to explain because no one would have predicted it before the season. However, take a look at his pitch repertoire, and the story becomes a whole lot clearer.

Liriano has always been a power pitcher, and even though he has suffered serious arm injuries in his past, that still holds true today. His average fastball this season sits at 92.9 mph according to Fangraphs, good for 16th in the majors. In nearly every year of his career, a majority of his pitches thrown have been fastballs. The years for which that is not the case are 2006 (43.6 percent), 2010 (just barely, at 48.6 percent), and, you guessed it, 2013. He has taken it to a new level this season, though, throwing just 41.7 percent fastballs. And, those three years have something in common -- they just happen to be Liriano's three successful major league seasons. That is no accident, my friends. Despite a blazing fastball, Liriano's off-speed offerings have always been his best pitches, especially his slider. When he throws them with more regularity, he has more success.

This year, Liriano is throwing his slider 37.4 percent of the time, and the only other time he's thrown his slider more often was in 2006, when 37.6 percent of his pitches were slide-pieces. Along with that, he's throwing his changeup a career-high 20.9 percent of the time. Not only have those been his two best pitches this year, they've been two of the best offerings in the majors. According to Fangraphs, for every 100 sliders he has thrown, Liriano has saved 2.51 runs, making it the sixth-best slider in the league. His changeup has saved 1.43 runs per 100 pitches, good enough for 15th.

Back at the All-Star Break, I talked about why I didn't believe the Pirates' staff could keep it up during the second half of the season. As far as Liriano is concerned, I'm now one of the converted.

Starting pitcher barometer

Who's up?

Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians: The season keeps getting better and better for the Indians, and that's true for Kluber, as well. One of the biggest surprise players on one of the biggest surprise teams, Kluber had his best start of the year in perhaps his biggest outing to date Monday. In game one of a crucial four-game set with the Tigers, Kluber tossed 7.1 shutout innings, striking out six. Chris Perez imploded in the ninth, blowing Kluber's win by allowing four runs, but it marked the sixth consecutive strong start for the righty. Somehow, he's still widely available. He should be owned in all mixed leagues with at least 12 teams.

Doug Fister, Detroit Tigers: After allowing six runs in back-to-back starts, Fister has had four really good outings in a row, and has allowed just one earned run in his last 16 innings. However, he's really an upgrade thanks to the suspension of Jhonny Peralta. The Tigers knew the suspension was coming, which is why they acquired Jose Iglesias in the three-team deal that sent Jake Peavy to Boston from the South Side of Chicago. Fister, a ground-ball pitcher who has induced 56.6 percent wormburners this year, will benefit from replacing the plodding Peralta with the slick-fielding Iglesias. He's already having a great year, but his BABIP is a career-high .307. Expect that to come down with Iglesias behind him.

Kyle Lohse, Milwaukee Brewers: Take out an unsightly May (6.51 ERA, 6.17 FIP), and Lohse is 7-3 with a 2.42 ERA on the year. Of course you can't just selectively eliminate a month, but the point is Lohse has been a quietly useful pitcher in fantasy leagues this year. He has been hot of late, giving up just three earned runs in his last 24 innings, a stretch covering four starts.

Who's down?

Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs: Last year, Samardzija scuffled in June, posting a 10.41 ERA for the month. He made it a bit longer this year, but had a rough go of it in July (5.28 ERA, 5.32 FIP), and allowed three runs on five walks and seven hits in six innings in his first start in August. The strikeout rate remains high, making Samardzija a serious fantasy weapon even when he's giving up runs, but if he's going to be the front-of the-rotation guy the Cubs (and fantasy owners) expect him to be, he'll need to develop a greater measure of consistency.

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers: I've resisted all year, but it's finally time to downgrade Verlander. For the first time since his pedestrial 2008 season, he has been very erratic, encapsulated by his last six starts, in which his runs-allowed totals are zero, five, zero, five, seven and one. If I own him in any leagues, I'm not trying to move him, but it simply has not been a typical Verlander season.

What a relief

• The trade deadline only gave us one new closer, and even that was underwhelming given that it was in Houston. The very next day, we had another new closer when the Mariners finally took the role away from Tom Wilhelmsen after he gave up four runs and didn't record an out in a loss to the Red Sox. Danny Farquhar takes over for the time being, and he appears to have staying power. In 35.1 innings this season, the 26-year-old has a 1.96 FIP and 53 strikeouts. If he's still available in your league, grab him now. Barring an injury or waiver trade, this might be your last chance to pick up a new closer this season.

• Given that all 30 closers are likely in place for the rest of the year, we'll move away from the comings and going at the position. Instead, we'll focus on the great relief performances we've seen this season, and I'd like to start with a guy whose praises I've sung all season, Koji Uehara. Despite being the best reliever in the Red Sox' 'pen, he didn't get a chance to close until the end of June, but has been one of the most effective closers since taking over the role. This season, he has a 1.40 ERA, 2.12 FIP and a ridiculous 71/9 K/BB ratio. Hitters have managed just a .150/.196/.279 slash against him, and have popped out nearly twice as often as they've hit line drives (18.5 percent vs. 10.4 percent) Appreciate Koji, everyone.

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