SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – I offered the following observation on Twitter yesterday after watching two innings of Francisco Liriano’s Pirates debut:
I don’t think this is hyperbole: Liriano’s stuff in the first two innings was the best of any Pirates starter this season.
Liriano with the best stuff on the Pirates staff? Crazy? Maybe not.
To review, Liriano opened the game by striking out four in two perfect innings.
He began by striking out Reuben Tejada on this sequence: 93 mph fastball (strike), 93 mph fastball (strike), 94 mph fastball (ball) and vintage Liriano back-foot slider (87 mph) to induce a swinging strikeout.
In the second inning, he placed two 95 mph fastballs in the strikezone against John Buck, and finished him off by inducing him to swing and miss at a fading 86 mph changeup that dove out of the strikezone.
(Liriano looked like the 2010 version of Liriano on Sunday — which was a legit top of the rotation arm)
It was a successful debut for Liriano who posted this final line: 5.1 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 9 K. Both Liriano and Scott Kazmir (10ks on Thursday for Cleveland) looked to have jumped out of 2007 time capsules this past week.
What we saw on Sunday was top-of-the-rotation stuff:
*Liriano’s fastball averaged 93.8 mph, per Brooks Baseball. Rare velocity for a lefty, and in line with his 2010 velocity (93.8 mph) when he posted a 5.2 WAR, his best season since Tommy John surgery. Last season his 93 mph fastball ranked as the fifth-best velocity among lefty starters in the game, in the top five with names like David Price, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Moore. The velocity remains steady.
*Liriano recorded eight swings and misses with his slider, a 25% swing-and-miss rate. The pitch has always been Liriano’s strikeout pitch and rivals AJ Burnett’s curveball as the best strikeout pitch on the staff.
*But where Liriano really has a chance to separate himself is with his changeup, which I think he has not utilized enough in the past. Liriano generated eight swings and misses with the pitch. The Mets swung and missed at the pitch 44 percent of the time. If he has fastball command and his third pitch working, he’s very tough.
Liriano is never going to be the same pitcher he was prior to his 2008 Tommy John surgery. He doesn’t throw 98 mph anymore. But he still has elite velocity and stuff for a lefty. He has swing-and-miss offspeed pitches.
The key with the enigmatic lefty is control.
In his one star-level season post Tommy John surgery, 2010, Liriano walked only 2.7 batters per nine innings. Too often his walk rates have been like last season’s when he walked five batters per nine innings.
This is perhaps where Sunday’s start was most encouraging. Liriano attributed his improved command in his rehab starts to throwing with a slightly more over-hand delivery. The tweak continued to produce results Sunday. Liriano threw his four-seam fastball for strikes 68 percent of the time.
Is it sustainable? That’s the key question.
He has a top-of-the-rotation arm if he can solve his command struggles. With improved command he can be the best pitcher on the Pirates staff. Yes, even ahead of current staff ace A.J. Burnett. Burnett has improved his command in recent years. The question is can Liriano, who possesses a tick more velocity and a better third pitch than Burnett.
Regardless of how he progresses, regardless if he can recapture his 2010 form, Liriano showed Sunday why he was a $1 million lottery ticket worth scratching.