Jays From the Couch examines Toronto Blue Jays’ SP, Francisco Liriano, as one of, if not the top No. 5 Starting Pitcher in Baseball
Fresh off a Spring Training shove session Monday afternoon versus the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays No. 5 starter Francisco Liriano is feeling great with his results this spring. In addition to Monday’s 4 2/3 innings of 10 strikeouts effort, Liriano has dominated the Grapefruit League early on. Monday’s two-run shot to enigmatic bomb technician Byung-ho Park are the only runs surrendered by the veteran lefty over 9 2/3 innings this spring. Even better – he’s struck out 18 in that time frame while walking just two and relenting six hits.
So, make that eight strikeouts through four innings for Francisco Liriano. Fastball's sitting 92-93, and has hit 95. Slider's unhittable.
— Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling) March 20, 2017
Liriano burst onto the MLB scene in 2006, posting a 2.13 ERA in his rookie season while making the American League all-star roster and finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. Using a devastating fastball-slider combination, Liriano struck out 144 batters in just over 121 innings pitched, setting himself up as the ace of the Twins staff for years to come. If didn’t go so smoothly for Lirano after that season, though, and over the next four seasons he alternated ERAs in the upper threes and fives, eventually being traded to the White Sox in 2012 and signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013. There, pitching coach extraordinaire Ray Searage worked his usual magic a la J.A. Happ (and hopefully Drew Hutchison), and Liriano was back to what he was in his early Twins career, posting ERAs in the middle-threes and improving his strikeout-walk ratio.
Liriano posted nearly identical numbers in 2014 and 2015, but in 2016 things began to fall apart – at least in the first two-thirds of the season. The Pirates, mostly out of contention in a brutally tough NL central, shipped Liriano to Toronto, along with Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez, for Drew Hutchison. Reunited with his backstop from his first two years in Pittsburgh, Liriano found himself again:
Liriano has shown full-seasons of No. 3 or even a No. 2 stuff, and with a second half like the one Liriano put up in 2016 (and his impressive spring), it’s worth wondering who might put up better numbers than him in a No. 5 starter position in 2017. So let’s take a look at that. After scrolling through the depth charts for each team at MLB.com, the following starters were selected as potential competitors Cy No.5: Tanner Roark, Mike Montgomery, Alex Reyes, Julio Urias and Vincent Velasquez. Their stats from 2016, along with those of Francisco Liriano’s, are listed below:
In order to keep the data neat, some basics metrics were selected: Innings Pitched is incredibly important for a No. 5 starter, as is a reasonable ERA and FIP. Assuming not much analysis could be done on these stats alone, K/9, BB/9 and Fangraphs WAR is added to see how the data works together.
Quickly, two players jump out: Tanner Roark and Vince Velasquez. These two pitched the most similar innings to Liriano, but they did so while limiting the damage to a greater degree. Roark posted a sparkling ERA of 2.82 (3.79 FIP) and Velasquez 4.12 (3.96 FIP), which any team would love from their No. 5 starter. Their fWAR – Roark at 3.2 and Velasquez at 2.2 – towers over Liriano’s 0.4 – though we can assume he’d be more inclined to post something in the 1.5-2.0 area if given a whole season at his performance at the end of 2016. So we can safely say, at this moment, Liriano isn’t the league’s best No. 5.
Then comes the other guys. These younger players will likely not be No. 5’s at the end of the 2017 season, but as of right now, that’s where they slot into their team’s rotations, barring a shakeup in MLB’s depth charts (which is almost inevitable to some extent.) And it is with these young studs that we have the most questions. Alex Reyes has already been lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery, so we’ll just take a brief look at Julio Urias of the Dodgers. In just 77 innings in 2017, the 20-year-old posted a 3.39 ERA, 9.82 K/9 and a 3.17 BB/9, all well-above what Liriano did (albeit in just half the season with a much-less labored arm.) The result was a fWAR of 1.8, or four times the value that Liriano was worth in 2016.
Mike Montgomery of the Cubs is also an interesting case. Montgomery pitched mostly (maybe entirely) out of the bullpen in 2016 for the Mariners and Cubs. At 27, he’s not young – but his 2016 season of 2.52 ERA (3.79 FIP) while posting a good but not great walk rate (3.7) and a serviceable strikeout rate (6.4) will make him very valuable to the Cubs in 2017 as he transitions to the starting rotation. However, with Liriano’s career K/9, Montgomery might be the easiest to overcome in value.
And then there’s the Mets! The Mets now have a plethora of pitching, although by May of this season, no one would be surprised if half of the rotation is on the disabled list, because, well…Mets. At the moment, though, they’re all healthy, leading to a three-way battle for that fifth rotation spot vacated by Bartolo Colon this winter. Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and a finally-healthy Zack Wheeler. Wheeler would likely be the best-case scenario (285 career innings at a 3.50 ERA), but his innings will most definitely be limited. Seth Lugo of StatCast fame will likely fill in plenty of those innings, and he’s been pretty impressive this month for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. At the “bottom” of the Mets spoils sits Robert Gsellman, who only pitched 44 innings of sub-2.50 ERA for the Mets last season, filling a role similar to that that these three will make up this season.
So, Liriano probably isn’t the best No. 5 starter in baseball. We are living in an incredible time in baseball in which there is more talent than ever, and some teams have a lot more of it than others. While Roark and Velasquez could very well dominate from their basement lairs this season, Francisco Liriano has shown there’s plenty of talent left in his arm. He’s not the best No. 5 right now, but at the end of the season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was, and I’m sure the Jays will benefit plenty from his services in 2017.
*Featured Image Credit: Rob Lockhart UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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