The signing of Francisco Liriano last offseason came with a lot of scrutiny and questions. Even after the signing, there were even more concerns after the Pittsburgh Pirates learned about him breaking his arm on Christmas morning trying to scare his kids.
The Pirates ended up re-doing the deal, giving Liriano much less guaranteed money. Liriano would end up pitching well enough to outplay his contract easily; he would have even outperformed his original contract — the one before it got restructured. In 2013, Liriano went from a high-upside pitcher with serious consistency issues to a staff ace. Due to his self-inflicted arm injury, the lefty would miss the first month of the season, but would return and become a dominant pitcher for the Pirates.
In 2013, Liriano pitched 161 innings with a 3.02 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. He would put up some of the best peripheral numbers of his career, including 9.11 K/9 and 3.52 BB/9. He also had a very good 50.5 ground ball percentage.
Even with Liriano being great last season, a pitcher came up and overshadowed him down the stretch. His name was Gerrit Cole, a 22-year-old power-pitcher. Cole’s average fastball speed ranked in the top five in the National League last season, and when he started to use his offspeed pitches, he became flat-out dominant. In the first month or two after his call-up, Cole relied very heavily on the fastball. He was able to pitch well, limiting walks and runs, but his strikeouts didn’t show up. In the late part of the season, Cole started to use his curveball and slider on a more regular basis.
One can tell when Cole started to mix up his pitches. In June, July and August, Cole’s best strike out rate was 7.47 K/9. He had a 10.97 K/9 in September and October combined. On the season, in 117.1 innings, Cole had a 3.22 ERA with a 2.91 FIP and just 2.15 BB/9. Cole’s ability to rack up the strikeouts down the stretch while continuing to limit walks is a good sign moving forward.
If Cole shows he can continue to dominate hitters in Spring Training, it would only prove that he is more deserving of the Opening Day start, but manager Clint Hurdle has already made his decision. Hurdle favors his veterans, and while Liriano is a great choice to start on Opening Day for most teams, Hurdle made the wrong choice this time.