Francisco Liriano: A Left-Handed Relief Option

This author hopes your team isn’t in need of an impact left-handed reliever. The free-agent market is short on product. Mike Minor, the top lefty relief arm available this offseason, just signed a three-year, $28 million deal that some regard as outrageous. (Although Dave Cameron and the crowd each predicted a three-year $27-million deal.) And Minor was ostensibly signed to be a starter. Jake McGee and Tony Watson are the only remaining lefty relievers populating most top-50 free-agent lists, including Dave’s, and they will argue that Minor set the top of the left-handed relief market.

Of the 48 remaining free-agent relievers who threw at least 20 innings last season, 40 are right-handed. There are eight remaining lefties in the group and one — Boone Logan — is coming off a significant injury. Only two — McGee and Brian Duensing — are projected to produce more than 0.5 WAR in 2018. Minor is, of course, off the market. The rest of the available arms — including Fernando Abad, Craig Breslow, and Oliver Perez — have flaws.

But there’s one player not included in the group who could be a left-handed reliever of interest and that’s the enigma that is Francisco Liriano. While the Rangers think Minor might excel as a starter, some teams might regard Liriano as a left-handed specialist — or a sort of multi-inning reliever to be paired with a right-handed starter.

The Astros were interested in Liriano as a reliever last season. They acquired the left-hander and converted him to a bullpen arm, though the initial experiment didn’t go well down the stretch. Astros manager A.J. Hinch didn’t seem to trust many members of his bullpen in the postseason, and he certainly did not trust Liriano, who tossed only 2.2 innings in the playoffs.

Still, this author remains intrigued.

While some team might give Liriano a major-league deal as a starter, it would be interesting to see Liriano employed for an entire season as a reliever.

Liriano has had a roller coaster of a career, of course.

He burst onto the scene in 2006 with an electric arm, posting a 30.4% strikeout percentage and a 23.7-point strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%) in a much different strikeout environment. He then hurt his elbow, had Tommy John surgery, and became a reminder that the road back from the procedure isn’t always a smooth one. He wasn’t an above-average starter again until 2010, and he followed that season with two poor campaigns. He was very good again in 2013 for the Pirates before once again losing command and effectiveness.

For all his ups and downs, however, he’s done one thing consistently well: he’s gotten lefties out. Liriano posted a 17.0-point K-BB% and a .286 wOBA mark versus lefties in 2017, compared to 4.4 K-BB% and a .374 wOBA against righties. For his career, Liriano has posted a 17.4 K-BB% mark and .273 wOBA versus lefties compared to a 12.5 K-BB% differential and .321 wOBA against righties.

Deployed in a relief capacity, Liriano would not only draw the platoon advantage more often, but it’s also likely that his stuff would play up.

Working out of the bullpen for the Astros in September, Liriano recorded an average velocity of 95.1 mph on his four-seamer, while his two-seamer sat at 95.2 mph. In October, his four-seamer averaged 95.3 mph. According to Brooks Baseball data, September represented the top velocity his fastball has showcased in a regular season month since at least 2008.

Liriano still featured a wipeout slider, his signature pitch, in 2017. His 37.5% whiff rate on swings ranked 37th among starting pitchers, according to the PITCHf/x leaderboard at Baseball prospectus. His changeup ranked 27th in whiff-per-swing rate (34.8%). The challenge with Liriano has typically been throwing strikes; his zone rate has ranked among the lowest in the game. He’s been dependent upon chase, and opponents have reduced their out-of-zone swing rate in three consecutive seasons. But perhaps a boost in stuff and velocity while pitching from the bullpen could help Liriano improve those numbers.

It’s become more difficult to find value with WAR/$ numbers basically a science and so many teams evaluating talent the same way. Teams have to dig deeper. Liriano is something of a lottery ticket. But if a team could limit his exposure to righties, if his stuff could play up in shorter stints, he would still exhibit rare velocity for a lefty, a wipeout slider, and a quality changeup.

There aren’t a ton of lefty bullpen arms available, and there even fewer with Liriano’s raw stuff. He’s a high-risk arm, but he could also produce a significant return on investment. Liriano has surprised us before.

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.

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4 years ago

Would like to see him re-sign with Houston; but perhaps the biggest question is, has he committed to a conversion to full-time reliever ? When the Astros acquired him last year and asked him to pitch relief he naturally went along – what else could he do – and the transition was rough, as could be expected from a guy whose command has always been iffy even in the best of times. But now, he could see Minor get 3/$28M, numbers he probably would not merit purely as a reliever, and feel with some justification that he merits a starting role with starter money. Everyone seems to agree that he could be a promising bullpen piece…..but only if he’s on board with it.