Astros Add Francisco Liriano, Plan an Experiment

For a second straight deadline period, Francisco Liriano is reportedly on the move. This time the lefty is heading from the Blue Jays to the Astros for outfielder Nori Aoki and a outfield prospect Teoscar Hernandez

Liriano has been one of the more volatile performers of his time.

A quick synopsis: He burst on to the scene in 2006 as one of the most talented young players in the game. Like so many pitchers, his ulnar collateral ligament snapped and it wasn’t until 2010 when he was again an above-average performer. He then struggled again, and was so bad he was traded from the Twins and later banished to the White Sox bullpen at the end of the 2012 season. The Pirates targeted him as a reclamation project in the 2012-13 offseason and signed him two-year to a deal. He broke his arm that winter, apparently trying to scare his kids, and renegotiated a lesser deal with the club.

With the help of pitcher whisperer Ray Searage, he bounced back to ace-like form in 2013 and 2014, helping the Pirates end their playoff drought. The club resigned him to a three-year $39 deal after the 2014 season. But Liriano struggled so badly last year, he was dealt to Toronto last deadline, along with prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez, in what was ostensibly a salary dump.

Liriano’s struggles continued back in the American League this season where he owns a 5.88 ERA, 5.02 xFIP and 11.5% walk rate. And now in the last year of his deal, he is reportedly on the move again, but this time, not only to a new destination but also to a new role, as a reliever.

Liriano has appeared in 303 major league games, but he has started 274 of those games. This would be a rare role for him. But at a time when the asking prices are reportedly high on lefty relievers like Brad Hand, this could be a stealthy addition for the Astros.

Liriano has still done one thing exceptionally and consistently well this year and throughout his career: he’s neutralized left-handed batters. He’s limited lefties to a .262 wOBA and a .230/.254/.361 slash line in 2017. For his career, he’s limited lefties to a .272 wOBA and a .219/.294/.305 slash line.

He has at times been historically good against lefties. As FanGraphs alumnus Jonah Keri noted in 2013, Liriano was the ultimate lefty killer, holding lefties to a .336 OPS that season. It was the top mark by a lefty against left-handed hitters in a single season in modern history, minimum 100 plate appearances.

So the one thing Liriano has consistently done is retire lefties and he’s still getting it done this season.

Against lefties this year Liriano has a K-BB mark of 25.4%

Against righties? 4.8%.

He is striking out 27% of lefties he has faced, and walking just 1.8% of left-handed hitters stepping in against him.

And against all batters, he is significantly better his first time through the order (4.26 FIP) than his second (5.39 FIP).

This is a profile that screams situational lefty.

Liriano still refuses — or is unable — to consistently throw his stuff in the zone as his 39.5% zone rate ranks 16th lowest among pitchers with at least 40 innings thrown this season.

But his slider remains a weapon against lefties, generating a 35% whiff-per-swing rate. His two-seam fastball velocity has held steady (92.6 mph), which perhaps could jump up a tick or two coming out of the bullpen.

Whether or not the Astros add another reliever before the deadline, Liriano has the chance to add to an already formidable bullpen.

As for the Blue Jays return, Hernandez ranks as a midseason top 100 KATOH prospect. Eric Longehagen rated him as the Astros’ No. 8 prospect this preseason with a 45 FV.

Wrote Longenhagen this spring:

While Hernandez’s game power is limited a bit by his newfound approach, he’s an above-average runner capable of playing all three outfield spots (I have him projected in the corners because I can’t see him supplanting Springer in center) and has an above-average arm. Even if the hit/power combination isn’t sexy in a corner spot, it’s nevertheless viable, and Hernandez projects as a second-division regular. With Houston’s glut of outfielders at the upper levels, he might be relegated to luxurious fourth-outfielder duty as long as he’s in the org.

Hernandez put up a 93 wRC+ mark in 41 games as a rookie last year with the Astros and has slashed .279/.369/.485 in Triple-A this season. This is not a future star, but he could be solid reserve outfielder, which is perhaps more than would typically be expected in a return or one of the least effective starting pitchers in baseball.

But then again, we never know what to expect from Liriano. And he might be a value-added arm in the bullpen. Perhaps that’s where he now belongs.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

I don’t know whether to be surprised at how the Pirates actually came out ok in that trade, or point out that the Jays got a lot more out of their Liriano trade than the Pirates did.

6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

I was pretty interested to see Drew Hutchinson with Ray Searage, but it’s looking less and less likely to be a thing that will work.