Has Francisco Liriano finally chased the ghosts that earned him the nickname Fransucksco?
After 102.2 stellar innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates, you’d probably have to think so. Yes, the lefty’s name has started to once again emerge in baseball discussion where the term “elite pitcher” is used, effective leading the Bucs’ league-best rotation after the baseball world had all but dismissed him as an inconsistent bust with a world of talent and a serious control problem.
And while it’s certainly worth pointing out just how his reduced walk rate this season (3.68 BB/9 from 5.00 in 2012) has been a big contributor to his 2.02/1.15 ERA, it’s by no means the most important key to his success.
That title will have go to his ability to induce ground balls, something that he hasn’t done nearly as effective since 2010.
Yes, that’d be the same 2012 season where he broke out as a 5.8 fWAR pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. That year, he’d generated ground balls at a 53.6 percent rate, good enough for a 1.96 GB/FB ratio.
This season? He’s topped 50 percent for the first time in three years, currently settling at 52.7 percent for an even better 2.06 GB/FB ratio. Combined with the benefits of playing in the NL and particularly in the offense-suppressing PNC Park (league-low 0.527 park factor for home runs, 27th-ranked 0.878 for runs), it’s really no wonder why he’s enjoying his best ratios since his 3.8 fWAR rookie season all the way back in 2006.
Not only have the ground balls attributed to a dramatic reduction of his homer rate to a career-best 0.35 this season, the trickle-down effects have also reached the good ol’ luck department, as he’s enjoying a career-best 84.5 percent strand rate and a career-low .272 BABIP despite allowing more line drives (21.8 percent) than he did in 2012 (21.3 percent).
Yes, being good can go a long way to being lucky, as Liriano and the Pirates are both more than happy to find out this season.
But what has changed really to lead to such dramatic results? Well, it may be a slight tweak that the southpaw has made to his repertoire, as he’s using his fastball less these days (41.7 percent combined, a career-low), putting a little more more emphasis on his slider (37.5 percent, a high in PITCHf/x era) and changup (20.8 percent to 16.6 in 2012).
This change, and perhaps the fact that he’s still new to NL batters, have led to a significant increase in swings at pitchers outside the zone (35.6 percent compared to 30.7 in 2012), which probably somewhat explains the increase in grounders.
What ever it may be, all it matters for the Pirates is one thing — as long as Liriano can keep those ground balls coming, the team should be able to keep the St. Louis Cardinals grounded in the NL Central race too.