Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Mets

Francisco Liriano has looked very good for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013. Of course, he’s made just three starts thus far, but he currently holds a 3-0 record, 1.00 ERA, 1.28 FIP, 2.23 xFIP, and he’s striking out 12.50 batters per nine innings.

The Bucs reached an agreement on a two-year, $12.75 million contract with Liriano in December. A right arm injury put the deal in jeopardy, but it was finalized in January once some adjustments were made to the language of the contract. Other than Liriano missing the first month and a half of the season, it’s looked like a good deal early on.

The 29-year old left-hander has always been able to miss bats. Liriano throws what could be labelled as as an “electric slider”, or “wipeout slider”. Whatever you want to call it, Liriano has a 22.5% whiff rate on his slider for his career (based on data available from 2007 forward). It’s a good one when he has a handle on it.

Liriano gets Anthony Rizzo with a sweeping slider

The knock on Liriano is that he’s always been erratic. His walk rate nearly reached 13% in his two previous seasons, and it led to some awful looking numbers and results.

Flash forward to this year, and a glance at this teeny sample size. Liriano is missing bats with just about everything he’s throwing right now. Through his first three starts of the season, Liriano’s whiff rate on his slider is nearly 28%; 25% on his changeup; 11% on his fourseam fastball; 7% on his sinker (or two-seam fastball, as some refer to it). For his career, Liriano’s whiff rates are as follows: slider 22.5%; changeup 18%; fourseam fastball 4%; two-seam/sinker 6%. Add it all up and we have a delicious recipe for unsustainable stew.

The Pirates are enjoying this version of Liriano and his faux-gaudy numbers, but he’s thrown just 18 innings thus far and is boasting his highest K% (32.9%) since 2005 and his lowest BB% (7.9%) since 2010. While the slider will probably continue to generate a pile of whiffs, it seems very unlikely that he’ll keep missing bats with the rest of his arsenal at this current rate.

Still, that changeup is drrrrr-opping off the table real sexy…

Liriano takes the ball today versus the Detroit Tigers. You could safely say this will be his first major test. The left-hander’s first three starts have come against the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago Cubs. There’s a decent chance Liriano surrenders his first home run of 2013 today.

If Liriano can get through the Tigers orders a few times and keep missing bats and limiting damage, then maybe we have something to marvel at here. Otherwise, it’s been a fun little quasi-renaissance from a pitcher with an exciting, and often unpredictable, arm. Reality coming, though.

With data from Brooks Baseball