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Francisco Liriano’s new label: staff ace … And is Liriano the best free agent signing of the offseason? (yes)

SAN DIEGO – If you are thinking about holiday gift ideas for Clint Hurdle, I’d stay away from label makers.

 

I asked the Pirates manager after Francisco Liriano’s stellar 13-strikeout performance Monday if Liriano had done enough to earn designation as a No. 1 starter, as an ace.

 

“I’m not big on labels,” Hurdle said. “You guys are big on labels I’ll let you put whatever label you want on him.”

Liriano stepped out of a 2006 time capsule this season and timing couldn’t be better for the Pirates (AP)

 

I’ll ignore the fact that managers love labels. They employ closers. But OK, I’ll go ahead put a label on Liriano: ace.

 

From scrap-heap reclamation project, to staff ace. Quite a label. Comeback player of the year? Quite a story.

 

Liriano fits an ace profile:

 

He strikes out batters at an elite rate: 9.37 Ks per nine

 

Liriano is getting groundballs at an above average rate: 52.7 percent

 

The lefty is stranding runners at an elite 80 percent rate – in part because of the stuff – in part because Hurdle notes that Liriano has become better in the running game, altering his delivery times, bettering a holder runners (last night’s balk aside). His new mechanics are holding up better pitching from the stretch.

 

Liriano’s stuff is elite: a three-pitch mix that features two well above average breaking balls and a 93 mph two-seam fastball that is well above average velocity coming from the portside.

 

His slider and changeup have helped him to a 13.8 swinging strike rate, which is better than his swinging strike in 2006 when he was a rookie with a 98 mph fastball, looking like the best thing since Primanti Bros. began placing french fries on sandwiches.

 

The only thing not to like is his 3.5 walk rate.

 

But besides the ding, he fits an ace’s profile.

 

He’s also been a stopper. In his last four starts following a Pirates’ loss he’s allowed just two runs over 30 innings. The Pirates desperately needed a win last night and Liriano produced one of his best performances of the season.

 

Why is Liriano now a No. 1 after being relegated to the bargain bin this offseson? It’s simple: fastball command.

 

In September of last season, Liriano was struggling so badly with his command he was briefly demoted to the White Sox bullpen. The step backward was a move leading to his ascension to ace status this summer.

 

In the US Cellular Field bullpen last season, Liriano watched teammate Brett Myers command his fastball with an over-the-top delivery. Throughout his career, Liriano had thrown with a three-quarters arm slot and struggled with fastball command. After watching Myers, Liriano decided to experiment with a more over-the-top delivery and found he felt better control of his fastball from the elevated arm slot. Over the winter he practiced the motion over and over, building up muscle memory.

 

Liriano is throwing first-pitch strikes 58.3 percent of the time this season, compared to 53.7 percent rate last season and 49.4 percent rate in 2011, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Getting ahead with his fastball has allowed his breaking stuff to play up.

 

It’s one slight tweak that has paid major dividends.

 

Fortunately for the Pirates, Liriano has an option for 2014 that is expected to vest.

 

If he had signed only a one-year deal he would have a major payday coming this offseason. Think an Edwin Jackson type contract: 4 years, $52 million. It’s not the type of deal the Pirates are likely to consider given Liriano’s inconsistency.

 

But for now, and perhaps also in 2014, they have found a staff ace for pennies on the dollar. Remember, he signed for just $1 million guaranteed this winter.

 

 

As a lead carrier of the Liriano banner, I cannot disagree.

 

- TS

 

4 Comments

  1. He’s the best Pirate free agent signing in a long, long time.

    Since Jim Bibby, probably.

  2. Best free agent signing since Russell Martin.

  3. Liriano borders on GREAT and I hope he’s with us next year. I was hoping Lambo would be
    our answer to a lousy offense, but I don’t think that 9 at bats was enough of a chance for the young fellow. Not many prospects from the minors are overnight stars. They have to be given some time to acquaint themselves to their surroundings and settle their nerves.

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