For Pirates' Liriano, a priceless transformation
The acquisition most responsible for the Pirates ending a 20-year losing streak and hosting Game 3 of the National League Division Series can be found on the PNC Park pitching mound at 4:37 p.m. Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Two hard, small-market truths are these: Lower-tier revenue clubs cannot afford free-agent aces. The Dodgers signed Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million dollar deal in the offseason, equivalent to one-third of the total value of the Pirates' franchise, according to Forbes. But teams must have elite arms to advance to, and deep into, the postseason. The only avenues for small-market clubs to obtain such players is through amateur talent acquisition or finding undervalued players via free agency or trade.
The Pirates entered the offseason with one front-of-the-rotation arm in A.J. Burnett. The Pirates needed help, a fact that played out as 80 percent of the Opening Day rotation — Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke — failed to complete the year due to injury or performance.
For the Pirates to transform from perennial losers to a 94-win playoff team, Francisco Liriano had to transform. He had to change from the bargain-bin free agent no one wanted to the ace everyone wants to see Sunday.
An ace obscured
In Liriano, the Pirates have enjoyed a Cy Young-caliber season at a fifth-starter price.
Liriano was a 3.1 WAR player this season, a well above-average performance. A win above replacement is a stat designed to reduce a player's value to a single measurement of wins produced. One win above replacement is worth about $5.5 million in today's marketplace, meaning Liriano's 2013 is valued at $17 million. Liriano made $4.75 million in 2013, making his surplus value $12.25 million.
Clubs want to create surplus value. They want more value than what they pay for. The trick is finding such value in the free-agent market. The first challenge for the Pirates was identifying Liriano as a player capable of transforming.
Liriano had captured baseball's attention in 2006. His fastball reached 98 mph, and his slider gave lefties trepidation. He went 12-1 as a rookie with a 2.16 ERA. But late that season Liriano's ulnar collateral ligament tore.
Following Tommy John surgery, Liriano never was the same. He posted a 5.34 ERA in 2012 after a 5.09 mark in 2011. He walked five batters per nine innings each year. Last offseason, most teams had no interest in Liriano the free agent.
The Pirates saw an opportunity.
General manager Neal Huntington said three Pirates scouts had watched Liriano and saw flashes. They noted his velocity had crept up to preinjury levels. His fastball averaged 93 mph in 2012, ranking third among left-handed starters. They reported his slider and changeup remained swing-and-miss pitches.
“They really liked the arsenal,” Huntington said. “They believed in the slider and changeup and talked about fastball command being key.”
The Pirates' analytics department led by Dan Fox also found encouraging trends such as Liriano's strikeout rate, which climbed to 10.5 in the second half of 2012.
“They liked his indicators: the strikeouts, the groundballs,” Huntington said. “It was as a good team effort: a good combination between our scouting and our (statistical) information.”
After Liriano broke his right arm in an offseason accident, the Pirates renegotiated a deal that guaranteed Liriano only $1 million in 2013.
“I didn't think I was going to play this year,” Liriano said. “I just thank God for the opportunity and the Pirates to give me a chance to be able to pitch.”
Liriano and the Pirates are a case study of baseball chemistry. Had Liriano signed elsewhere, he likely would not be enjoying such a rebirth. And had the Pirates not had his 16-8, 3.02 ERA season, PNC Park might be closed for the season.
The landing spot in Pittsburgh was critical for Liriano. Not just because of NL batters being unfamiliar with the lefty but also because of pitching coach Ray Searage.
“Everybody wants to try to help and fix, and before you know it there are too many adjustments,” Searage said earlier this season. “There are so many different things, you try to limit it to one or two.”
To simplify, Searage began by having Liriano cut back on his pitch mix.
Liriano threw four-seam and two-seam fastballs with the Twins but had trouble commanding the four-seam fastball. He threw it for strikes just 50.3 percent of the time in 2011.
“When he first got here, his (fastball) command wasn't good,” Searage said.
According to pitch data from BrooksBaseball.net, Liriano has shelved his four-seam fastball in 2013.
Liriano reduced four-seam fastball usage, in part, because the organization began a defensive plan that required pitchers to create more groundballs, via two-seam fastballs, to be hit into defensive shifts. But Liriano also had better command of his two-seam fastball. This season, Liriano is throwing his two-seam fastball for strikes at a 58 percent rate.
Liriano's swinging strike rate — 13.2 percent — is the same this season as last. The difference is he has been ahead of more hitters.
“My offspeed has been there the last couple of years. I just wasn't always able to locate my fastball well,” Liriano said. “Now I get more swing-and-miss because I get ahead with my fastball.”
Searage also worked with Liriano on making his delivery more efficient.
Demoted to the White Sox bullpen last September, Liriano noticed teammate Brett Myers commanding his fastball with an over-the-top delivery. Liriano began experimenting with the motion. Searage encouraged raising the release point because it allows pitcher to keep their fingers more on top of the ball, creating better control and fewer east-west misses. Liriano has cut his walks by 40 percent.
“The (coaching staff) gives us great confidence in signing pitchers,” Huntington said. “We're going to get the most out of any pitcher we bring in here. … He's certainly exceeded expectations.”
Freeing a weapon
Liriano's transformation includes relying upon offspeed pitches more than ever, including his signature weapon: a wipeout slider.
“His pitch use this year is more secondary than it's been the past,” Huntington said.
Liriano has never thrown fewer fastballs than in 2013 (41.3 percent), and he hasn't thrown more sliders (36 percent) since his rookie year in 2006.
His slider was a main reason the Pirates started Liriano against the left-handed-heavy Reds in the wild-card game.
Liriano threw his slider 44 times against the Reds compared to 23 fastballs. As Fangraphs.com noted, 34 of the sliders were for strikes and 13 were swinging strikes. Liriano allowed just one run over seven innings.
Pirates catcher Russell Martin is praised for maximizing pitchers' strengths.
“It's been his bread and butter,” Martin said of the slider. “The slider looks like a fastball coming out of his hand.” But then it drops as if an invisible plane it was traveling upon has given way.
The slider is part of an individual transformation leading to a team transformation that even the most optimistic did not envision in February: Liriano on the mound, the Pirates two wins from the NL Championship Series.
“You have to give the man credit for the heart, the conviction, the intent that he put into everything,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “That is what really, I think, has given that degree of separation from what we might have thought we were going to get to what he has actually done.”