Clint Hurdle said something revealing about Francisco Liriano – and his approach and expectations with Liriano – prior to Sunday’s game. He noted Liriano is not a robot.
Cliff Lee is a robot.
Lee’s a cyborg sent from the future to pound the edges of the strike zone with cutters, curves and two-seam fastballs.
Liriano is like most of us in that he’s human.
Hurdle isn’t expecting Liriano, who made his second rehab start Saturday at Double-A and will make his third rehab start at Triple-A on Thursday, to be a savior. He’s managing expectations. But he does hope with a tweak or two that he can be a viable rotation member. And he could be in the Pirates rotation in early May as there figures to be an opening or two. (Will Jonathan Sanchez make another start?).
(Cliff Lee might be related to this guy, most of us, including Francisco Liriano, are not).
There’s reason to be intrigued by Liriano if your Hurdle, or in the Pirates front office.
Liriano can still miss bats. He averaged 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in the second half of last season. He still has plus velocity for a lefty (his fastball was between 90-94 mph Saturday). His slider still has bite and he throws a sold changeup. On his best days, he can throw a no-hitter, he can look like a top-of-the-rotation force (see: his 15k game versus the A’s last season). And he was a low-cost acquisition.
But on his worst days, Liriano will struggle to make it out of the third inning. He needed 67 pitches to make it through 2 2/3 innings on Saturday. Watching from a distance, Liriano seems to struggle to move on from bad pitches and innings at times. He’s always had shaky mechanics.
You can’t turn Liriano into a robot. You can’t hope he will turn into Cliff Lee. That’s just not going to happen. And Hurdle is not going to try. Rather than trying an extreme makeover with Liriano, the Pirates seem interested in making incremental improvements. Hurdle seems focused on one thing: get Liriano to pitch more to contact.
“I’m not going to psycho-analyze him there’s enough people who have done that,” Hurdle said. “I will speak to the fact that sometimes guys like this, guys who have that kind of stuff … anytime out there he can throw a no-hitter. Sometimes their competitive nature can overwhelm a pitcher with really good stuff because they get caught up in the swing and miss. They get caught up in putting people down rather than getting people out. It’s a different mindset. We’ve tried to address three pitches or less as a yard stick we like to use for our pitchers, how many outs can you record in three pitches or less.
“He’s a human being, he’s not a robot. He’s not a guy that just dial in and throw 75, 80 percent strikes so you deal with the history and you try to bring him along.”
The Pirates know the history. They know what they are buying. I think they are being realistic about what kind of improvement is possible. They want more early groundballs from Liriano, less focus on strikeouts.
Liriano’s probably not going to be savior. He’s probably going to have some rough starts, and the Pirates hope he has some great ones. Even if he’s a mixed bag, that would still make him a viable No. 4 starter.
That makes him a lottery ticket worth buying. He’s lefty that averaged 93 mph with his fastball and has a wipeout slider at times. There are not many pitchers like that in the game. He’s not going to turn into a strike-throwing robot but he can improve and provide a return on the investment.
HUNTINGTON SPEAKS ON PRIZED ARMS, HANSON
After underwhelming start to begin his career, Jameson Taillon has been a beast since the mid point of last season.
He’s 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA in three starts with Altoona this season. He’s allowed just 11 hits and 7 walks in 18 innings. He’s struck out 20 batters. Heck, he held his own against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. He has the potential to pass Gerrit Cole as a prospect. He’s looking much like a future top-of-the rotation arm.
“His fastball four-seam command which was something that Jameson emphasized, we emphasize it with all our guys, but Jameson took it to another step and really wanted to focus on it,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. “He gave up some multi-run home runs with some mis-located four-seam fastballs when he probably could have gone to a two-seamer but give him all credit in the world for he’s trying to develop command, and he did develop it.”
Pitching success starts with fastball command, so it’s encouraging for the Pirates that Taillon recognized that and focused on the pitch rather than trying to rack up K numbers with his big curve. But don’t fear, the curve still work.
“He’s throwing breaking balls for strikes and for chase. It has become a weapon,” Huntington said. “He’s using his changeup, he continues to mature. His recognition of swings (has improved), of what hitters are trying to do. He’s developing as a pitcher and it’s fun to see.”
The third and youngest prized Pirates prospect arm, Luis Heredia, is still waiting to being his first full-season year at Low-A West Virginia.
“The challenge (with young arms) is how quickly do we build his innings, and at what point do we shut him down?” Huntingon said. “Was it better to start him out active with a full season club and then shut him down probably at some point in August? Or was it better to hold him back a bit, and keep him live, and maybe even have him pitch into instructional league? We chose to go the later route.”
Gerrit Cole has electric stuff, but he had another inefficient outing today: 4IP, H, 0R, 5BB (85 pitches). Cole is averaging 20 pitches per inning. He has to improve there.
Alen Hanson is going to hit. But for the Pirates he would be much more valuable if he could stay at shortstop, a position bereft of offensive difference makers at the MLB level. However, that’s looking unlikely as he’s really struggled in the field to date and was given a three-day mental break recently.
“In Alen’s case some of it is mechanical, some of it is concentration,” Huntington said. “We have to continue to work with him to stay focused and realize every ball in play is an out. And he has to make it that way. He has the ability to do it.”
His long-term home might be second base where he would be valuable, possibly in the outfield. But if he can stay at short, his bat would make him a star.