Francisco Liriano: The Blue Jays’ Secret Weapon in the Starting Rotation
On any other starting rotation, Francisco Liriano might be a number two or number three starter. As Drew Fairservice noted on a recent episode of Birds All Day, “Francisco Liriano is the Blue Jays’ fifth starter – and he is definitely better than the Orioles first starter”.
“Fifth starter” is merely semantics. Technically, Liriano will begin the season as the third starter out of the gate in the Blue Jays’ rotation, but in actuality, he’s still probably the bottom guy on the totem pole in terms of Blue Jays starting pitchers.
It says a lot in terms of quality of the Blue Jays’ starting rotation entering 2017; that they have five above-average arms in their starting five.
Many are picking Francisco Liriano as a dark horse candidate to do some damage in the AL East this year. He looked electric in four games during Spring Training. Liriano’s strikeout to walk ratio of 25:4 was unreal.
This spring, Liriano pitched fewer bullpens than he did in the past, and that went a long way to preserving his arm and maybe even making his breaking pitches better than ever.
Liriano showed flashes of brilliance in brief stints with the Blue Jays last year. Of course, the big concern with Francisco Liriano during his first half in Pittsburgh was his control. Liriano’s BB/9 spiked to 5.5 with the Pirates, but curtailed to 4.7 walks per nine by seasons’ end.
There’s also a belief that Pete Walker may have worked with Francisco Liriano to work on his delivery. Reuniting with his old pal Russell Martin likely also did wonders for Liriano – heck, it worked for Jason Grilli, right?
The funny thing is – Francisco Liriano was initially acquired to replace Aaron Sanchez in the starting rotation. But when the organization shifted their stance on Sanchez and opted to curtail his innings instead, Liriano became more of a rotation “spacer” so Sanchez could stay in the rotation.
And now the Blue Jays have the potential to get a full year of production out of the crafty lefty. If Liriano’s performance down the stretch in 2016 is any indication, and if there is any credence whatsoever to his Spring Training numbers, Liriano is poised to have a big year for the Blue Jays.
Francisco Liriano’s journey through the Major Leagues has seen many twists and turns. He went from being a perennial Cy Young candidate during his days in Minnesota, to nearly being washed up in 2011 and 2012, to enjoying a renaissance with the Pirates in 2013.
Overall, 2016 was a “down” year for Francisco Liriano, but perhaps that was merely a blip on the radar. What if Liriano were to make another comeback in 2017 and enjoy the second renaissance of his career?
If there’s one big concern about Liriano over the course of his career, it’s been his inability to throw more than 200 innings in a season. He’s never done it in his 11-year career, and I wouldn’t expect that to suddenly change in 2017. But even if he only throws 160-170 innings, those innings have to come from somewhere.
That was the one takeaway I learned from R.A. Dickey’s tenure with the Blue Jays. For his faults as a knuckleballer, and as erratic as his starts were, Dickey consistently ate up innings. It was much better to hand the ball to Dickey every five games than any other junkballer in the bullpen or depth starter in the minors.
With Francisco Liriano, not only can he provide 5-6 innings of work per start, but he has the potential to completely shut down a lineup for two turns through the lineup.
Although Francisco Liriano may not pitch deep into ball games and has developed into more of a “five and dive” guy, I’d gladly take five innings of Liriano and then take my chances with the bullpen to finish out the game.
By the way, of the eight starts Liriano made with the Blue Jays in 2016, he surrendered more than three runs on just one occasion (the Astros hit him for five earned runs on August 12th).
Francisco Liriano probably won’t win the Cy Young award this year. But under the tutelage of Pete Walker and reunited with Russell Martin for a full season, Francisco Liriano has more upside than any other back-end-of-the-rotation starter in the American League.